Counting down to kickoff
There is an air of excitement among Marlborough premier club rugby leading into the start of the 2014 season this weekend, and with good reason.
After several months off over summer and the usual fitness-intensive pre-season programmes, players are itching to get back on the field.
However, with a new and extended season structure in place and an influx of new players into the province, anticipation levels for players, coaches, management and supporters are even higher than normal at this time of year.
Changes to the season structure, which see round one matches played two weeks earlier than last year, come in the form of a much more extensive Bayleys Tasman Trophy competition.
For the past two seasons, the Marlborough and Nelson Bays teams have been split into two pools, with the top two from each pool qualifying for the playoffs.
This year, the competition will be played as a full round-robin, meaning each team will face all 11 other teams and the side with the most points after those matches crowned Tasman Trophy champions.
Like last season, both Marlborough and Nelson Bays start with a full round of five matches in their own competitions before moving into the combined format.
Matches between teams from the same sub-union during the Tasman Trophy will doubles as round two matches in their own competition, with the top four from either side of the Whangamoas qualifying for their respective sub-union playoffs to end the club season. Sub-union semfinals will be on July 12 and champions in the Marlborough and Nelson Bays competitions will be found on July 19.
Following the conclusion of the premier club season, the top players from both sub-unions will become part of the Marlborough-based Tasman Red Devils and Nelson Bays-based Tasman Griffins. Replacing the Tasman White Pointers B side, the two teams have been set up to give the Marlborough and Nelson Bays representative teams more extensive and consistent programmes and provide the Tasman union with a bigger depth of players at the next level.
The teams will contest the South Island championship in the northern section alongside Canterbury Metro, Canterbury Colts and Canterbury Maori, with round one matches scheduled for August 23.
Prior to that, Marlborough and Nelson Bays will still contest their annual fixtures, with the Cecil Shield again on Queen's Birthday Monday, June 2 and the Seddon Shield played for over three weekends between August 2-16.
Marlborough have the first challenge against holders West Coast on August 2 or 3, while the remaining two challenges will be on August 9 and 16.
Meanwhile, the Marlborough division two competition also starts on Saturday.
It will once again feature teams from all eight Marlborough clubs, with Pelorus the defending champions.
Junior club rugby starts on May 3 for the JAB under-9 and up grades, while the under-6 to eight grades get under way a week later on May 10.
Marlborough under-16 and under-18 teams will again play in combined competitions with Nelson starting on May 10, but teams are still being confirmed.
Here is a look at how the Marlborough premier teams areshaping up this season.
There appear to be more contenders this year, but expect the Blues to put up a strong defence of the Marlborough title.
While they have will not have openside flanker Adam Goldsworthy, who was one of Marlborough's most outstanding players in 2013, they have regained the services of hooker Jesse MacDonald after a season in Hawke's Bay which saw him earn time for the Magpies in the ITM Cup.
Older brother and Makos hooker Quentin is set to return from a three-month stint with Irish giants Munster in early June and may well feature after the halfway point of the Tasman Trophy.
Last year's Marlborough captain/flanker Reyne Volavola, experienced props John Pale and Riley Luke and rep lock Dan Crockett are others of note in the forwards, while flanker Matt Gibson, lock Dusty Foley and utility Charlie Shuttleworth will contribute.
There are a couple of key losses in the backs, with halfback Willie Alaiasa and Sam Aolele back in Auckland.
However, Central are not lacking strike weapons with big Fijian winger Willie Umu and Dutch counterpart Daniel van Wass, midfielder Jake Cresswell and veteran tackle-breaker Ono Levu Temo all in the mix.
Fullback/first five-eight Rawiri Tamati is back fulltime and offers plenty with boot and ball in hand and utility backs Anton Tiumalu and Allan Dinan are both solid performers.
Former Marlborough coach and midfield back Steve Crockett has taken over the reins, with the help of last year's Renwick coach Baz Henare, so a fast, up-tempo style from the defending champs can be expected.
New to the province, British prop Jack Higgins and lock Mick Deer join Brad Norton and Josh Nannai as newcomers in the pack.
Squad: Reyne Volavola, Riley Luke, Jesse MacDonald, Jack Higgins, Brad Norton, Josh Nannai, Dusty Foley, Mick Deer, Dan Crockett, Charlie Shuttleworth, Matt Gibson, Quentin MacDonald, John Pale, Anton Tiumalu, Gareth Smith, Rawiri Tamati, Ono Levu Temo, Jake Cresswell, Willie Umu, Allan Dinan, Daniel van Waas. Coach: Steve Crockett, Baz Henare. Manager: Warren Cairns.
A strong team culture was key as the resurgent Magpies surprised many to reach the final last season and it appears that will continue this year.
The boys from Spring Creek have had very good pre-season numbers and, although they have lost some key backs, there are plenty of new and returning faces to call on and they look particularly healthy up front.
Leading the way in the that department are experienced hooker Francis Smith and powerful No 8 Baxter Wilson, who is the team's new captain, while talented young flankers Brigham Hart and Haven Walsh and veteran lock Warrick de Waal add further strength.
Among the newcomers, young lock Michael Curry has come over from Nelson and is a good prospect, prop Johnny Tiueti has switched from Central and another prop, Mo Funaki, played for West Coast last year and has plenty of experience.
In the backs, 2013 skipper Benji Keenan and Noah Waaka are gone, while halfback Ben Smith and impressive centre Chris Ranstead will only play in the later half of the season, if at all.
Newcomer Johnny Ika and the returning Wavell Tetai will wear the No 9 and 10 jerseys initially, with a lot of the responsibility for providing attacking spark falling to wing Regan Marshall and fullback Noah Taio.
Co-coach Laurin Gane said they have had up to 40-plus players at most of their pre-season trainings, allowing them to get quite physical and run a lot of game-situation type scenarios. With a number of new faces, he said they would use the first two or three matches to give those players an opportunity, which would also enable he and co-coach Dave McCormick to establish a more settled squad.
Squad: Baxter Wilson (captain), Lockie McCormick, Zeb Muraahi, Mo Funaki, Johnny Tiueti, Francis Smith, Abe Rood, Warrick De Waal, Brigham Hart, Mike Curry, James Pigou, Haven Walsh, Luke Scott, Andrew Purua, Johnny Ika, Wavell Tetai, Malcolm Tairea, Johnny Tautari, Regan Marshall, Noah Taio, Taliah Love. Co-coaches: Laurin Gane and Dave McCormick.
After falling at the semifinal stage last season, Waitohi are eager to bounce back and have assembled a strong-looking squad to do so.
The big news for the team from Picton is the acquisition of big South African prop and Makos prospect Ross Geldenhuys. Also the club's new development officer, the 30 year-old tighthead is around 120kg, stands at 1.89m tall and has Super Rugby experience with the Lions and Kings.
Fellow South African Winston Cameron-Dow is another exciting addition, the lively first-five/fullback playing in the Perth premier competition and expected to wear the No 10 jersey in the early part of the season.
Elsewhere, the bulk of their squad, including most of the key players, are back. Mako Vernon Fredericks, co-captain Les Ivamy, Manu Mataele, Dan Karena and Mark Hodren are all big bodies, while busy flanker Kenneth Karena returns and young prop Bevan Moody, who was a standout for the successful Marlborough Boys' College first XV last year, makes the step up to senior rugby.
Cameron-Dow, co-captain James Giles and fullback Jayden Waters will form the nucleus of the backline, with Hawke's Bay arrival Mike Taiaroa competing with Giles for the halfback role.
Coach Tonga Taumoefolau said Geldenhuys and Cameron-Dow had already added a lot in key positions during a pre-season where the focus had been almost solely on fitness and formulating a game plan for the year. Although getting back to the final was definitely a target, he said the semifinal was their initial goal and, given how well teams had recruited, expected a real fight to make the top four.
Squad: James Giles (co-captain), Les Ivamy (co-captain), Filipo Ligaliga, Jayden Waters, Eugene Taylor, Tom Looms, Winston Cameron-Dow, Cameron Little, Mike Hillgrove, Henare Evans, Mike Taiaroa, Jayden Goodyer, Haki Evans, Mathew Burgess, Ross Geldenhuys, James Hounslow, Bevan Moody, Brad Hide, Chris Goodyer, Dan Karena, James Ivamy, Manu Mataele, Kenneth Karena, Mark Hodren, Vernon Fredericks. Coach: Tonga Taumoefolau. Manager: Diane Ivamy.
Quins were up and down in 2013, but there is optimism they can be more consistently competitive this year.
Not only do they have much better numbers, they have several new and returning players with the ability to solve some issues in what has been a troublesome backline over the past couple of years.
Former Marlborough halfback Daniel MacDonald is back after a stint in Sydney last season, while the club has recruited promising young players first five-eighth Brandyn Laursen and midfielder Connor Hirini from Wellington.
A highly regarded player with the MBC first XV several years ago, Chris Taualupe is another good addition in midfield and, alongside older brothers Willie, Richie and Koli, is one of four Taualupe's in the squad. Fleet-footed winger Ula Fotu, who played for the Nelson club premiers last year, brings finishing prowess.
Up-front, the 2013 Marlborough Express player of the year Jonny Hope is not playing and is a big loss, but Quins will be capable of holding their own in the forwards. Prop Fetu Ieremia and lock Pierre Vienings are more than reliable figures, while Vaea Samasoni and Mark Faasi are destructive loosies and the Taufa brothers, Willie and Atu, are ones to watch.
New coach Richard McNamara, who has been in the Marlborough region around 18 months and has plenty of experience coaching at premier and first XV level further south, said their pre-season had gone well with a good win over Stoke. He was encouraged by the high level of enthusiasm in his squad and said the challenge for him was to come up with a game plan that suited their skill sets and desire to play an expansive style of rugby.
Squad: Fetu Ieremia, Aaron Smith, Darryl Misi, Josh Bason, Pierre Vienings, Willie Taufa, Atu Taufa, Johnny Burdon, Vaea Samasoni, Mark Faasi, Matt Gudsell, Koli Taualupe, Daniel MacDonald, Matt Duggan, Brandyn Laursen, Gavin Morrison, Chris Taualupe, Connor Hirini, Willie Taualupe, Richie Taualupe, Rich Harris, Ula Fotu, Darryl Murray. Coach: Richard McNamara. Manager: Lou Taylor.
All the premier sides have recruited in one form or another, but Awatere have certainly been the most active in that area.
Like Quins, the backline has been an area of concern for the Tussock Jumpers in recent times and they have brought in a number of players in the hope of sorting that out.
New midfielder Lima Siinei has played a handful of matches for Waikato, while outside backs Manasa Naiyagi and Maleli Bula have both represented the Fijian sevens team.
Former Hamilton Boys' High halfback Ben Finau is likely to fill the void left by South African Johann Louw and there is a welcome return in the experience of former Marlborough utility back Bryn Cotching.
Loose forwards James Brown and Louis Finau are the new faces in a pack which is always up for a battle and will be just as tough this season.
Quins skipper last year, utility forward Simon Muir has made the move to the Seddon-based club, with props Kurt Lindsay and Jack Best, hooker Billy Collins, veteran lock Stu Campbell, lock/loose forwards Jack Roberton and Toby Morris and seasoned No 8 Paul Hickman rounding out a very solid group.
Awatere struggled early on last year, but made strides towards the end of the season and coach Glenn Blackmore said they were hoping to build on that following a positive pre-season bringing the new players into the team environment. He believed the new format would be tough, but said his players were looking forward to playing a positive brand of rugby and were certainly not there to make up the numbers.
Squad:Kurt Lindsay (captain), Craig Vanstone, Jack Best, Billy Collins, Simon Muir, Jack Roberton, Stu Campbell, Toby Morris, Louis Finau, Jim Burrows, James Brown, Paul Hickman, Ben Finau, Joe Asiasta, Bryn Cotching, David Pope, George Davies, Lima Siinei, Manasa Naiyagi, Maleli Bula, Wynton King, Levi Macdonald, Kieran Hickman. Coach: Glenn Blackmore.
Renwick have not had as much success as others on the recruiting front and it appears any improvement on a 2013 where wins were hard to come by would be a success.
Along with the losing the Schollum brothers, halfback Ryan and loose forward Kurt, to softball commitments, the Green Machine has lost last year's captain and loosie Hamish Greenwood and midfielder Rikki Winitana to retirement. Lock James Martin and first five-eighth Stu Nairn were solid performers last season, but both have left Marlborough.
Returning front-rowers Ryan McQuillan and Anaru Norton and flanker Hayden Marfell will form the core of the pack along with abrasive loosie Amco Cassidy, who was a key member of the division two champion Pelorus side last year. Part of the MBC first XV in 2013, young utility George Kenny is one to keep an eye on in the forwards.
In the backs, midfielder Kyle Marfell and the returning Kirk Nicholas are familiar names, while fullback Rikki Bovey and wing Tim Archie are handy pick-ups from Pelorus. After filling in capably on a couple of occasions last year, Hayden Howard takes over the No 10 role fulltime this year and could be a player to watch.
Manager Matt McCabe said they had gained a number of new arrivals to Marlborough, including several who were starting out in the division two team, but may turn out for the premiers at some stage during the season.
Squad: Jose Rangitihi, Ryan McQuillan, Milton Butler, Nick Dickson, Nick Kinninmonth, Will McGruddy, Petrus van Zgl, Anaru Norton, Dave McDonald, Brad Armstrong, George Kenny, Phil Stirling, Hayden Marfell, Amco Cassidy, Matt Price, Michael Ryan, Hayden Howard, Kyle Marfell, Kirk Nicholas, Ray Legg, Tim Archie, Rikki Bovey, Jade Brydon, Nick van Lent, Paul Pudney. Coach: Tony Katting. Manager: Matt McCabe.