Awatere now has new focus
Awatere came within a whisker of winning last year's Wadsco Marlborough premier club rugby grand final and this year they have made the semifinals again.
However their chances of winning tomorrow are slim judging by last week's below par display in losing to Biddy Kate's Central. But that performance and result has only served to fire the Tussock Jumpers up heading into tomorrow's clash against BNZ Harlequins at Lansdowne Park.
One TVA Awatere player with a big load on his big shoulders is lock Hamish Blackwell, a mainstay of the forward pack in recent seasons and a man on a rugby mission to get his team to the grand final.
The self-employed Awatere agricultural and earthworks contractor was in determined mood when spoken to on a job in the Awatere Valley earlier this week and was keen to put the previous week's disappointment behind him.
"We got a bit rattled last week. Definitely not at our best but we had a new focus at training this week. It doesn't take much [firing up] to want to take on Harlequins. It will be a different Awatere team on Saturday."
Awatere's strengths are in the forwards and as lineout caller Blackwell, or "Sky Lab" as he is known because he is just more than two metres, has a key role to play.
The biggest man in the pack, Blackwell prefers to stick to a traditional lock's role, battling in the close contact areas for advantage but he is also effective with ball in hand, particularly off lineout drives in the attacking zone.
Born in Taranaki, the 26-year-old came down to the Awatere area to work nine years ago, firstly doing farm work then vineyard and general contract work before buying a digger and going out on his own as a contractor in 2006.
He has always played lock, apart from one outing at prop against Waitohi which did not go so well. "I got beat up. My neck's too long."
Blackwell has not played for Marlborough yet and even at club level he worked his way into the premier side in 2007 via the B team and a couple of years ago played in the unbeaten Tasman Makos development team.
Injuries have hit Awatere hard this year, the most significant one pre-season to their brilliant halfback and playmaker Hamish Murray in a near tragic farm vehicle accident. Their star off-season signing Mitchell Crosswell went to Japan and others such as Sam Clouston and Kieran Hickman have been out of action through injury.
However Blackwell is confident they can step up tomorrow, despite those setbacks, and he believes their more relaxed approach this year will help.
When he is not playing rugby or working, the big lock enjoys trail riding and hunting but come tomorrow the only thing in his sights will be anything wearing a Harlequins jumper.
Awatere coach Chris Ryan was disappointed about his team's effort last week and let fly with both barrels at training on Tuesday.
"We let Central beat us up in the forwards and that's not on. You won't see that again from my team," Ryan said.
"There's a few out there don't think we should be in the semifinals. We've got a point to prove."
Ryan has halfback Sam Clouston back as well as flanker Sam Lunn and is hopeful wing Hickman will play some part.
Harlequins coach Graeme Hiku had not confirmed his team at the time of writing but will not have No 8 Stu Dalzell due to suspension after the rugged forward was sent off last week in their win over Moutere.
Despite the Quins being out of sorts in past weeks, they can win, if the forwards bring their A game.
In the early game at Lansdowne Park No 1, Central take on second-round winners and defending champions Crafar Crouch Waitohi.
While the Tohis are hot favourites to take out the title, Blues coach Neville Saul is confident that if his team play to their potential they can win. It also helps that they have beaten Waitohi twice already this season.
"I don't think either team wanted to meet each other in the semifinal but that's the way it is. We won last Saturday - but no-one was happy with the performance.
"We are playing well in short bursts. We've just got to focus on doing that for longer. I know we will be up for it."
Central's forward pack is boosted by the return of No 8 Kaleni Taetuli and hooker Dan McPherson.
Waitohi coach Nathan Peipi, a former Blues man himself, said his team is not underestimating how tough the semifinal will be.
"Obviously thrilled to be in the position we are in. We've given ourselves a chance to get in the final but we are playing a team we haven't beaten this year. The pressure is on us. The confidence is there but the pressure is on us," Peipi said.
Peipi is sweating on the fitness of hard-nosed flanker Joe Stewart and rates him 50/50 to play. Henry Evans replaces the injured Eugene Taylor on the wing. With game breakers like Vernon Fredericks, Manu Mataele and Stewart in the pack and Bryce Heem and Daniel Hawkins in the backs, the Tohis start warm favourites.
- The Marlborough Express