Canterbury rugby clubs ready for title fight
It's club rugby time again. For the next 18 weeks, starting today, the 12 division one teams will battle it out for the right to claim Christchurch Metropolitan club rugby supremacy. MATT RICHENS and BRENDON EGAN look at the teams fighting for the title.
■ BELFAST Home ground: Sheldon Park Last year: 10th Look out for: Siate Tokolahi, Ray McKay, Kolio Hifo. Belfast struggled last year with early injuries and could again face the same troubles early.
They have retained most of their side from last season and the added experience of the core group is likely to come in handy. Belfast finished 10th last season, but nine of their 13 losses in 2012 were by fewer than eight points, and how they perform in those close ones will dictate whether they push for the top six.
■ BURNSIDE Home ground: Burnside Park Last year: Champions Look out for: Luca Brown, Paul Burton, Andrew Olorenshaw. Last year's defending champions have been hit hard by the loss of last year's skipper Mikae Tuu'u, who is taking a season off and talented centre Sam Beard, who has headed to Bay of Plenty. Halfback Brett Cameron has semi-retired, and first five-eighths Phil Gibson is recovering from knee reconstruction and is not expected back until June. Burnside have picked up Canterbury under-20 halfback Luca Brown, who played for Sumner last year. Former Burnside first-five Paul Burton has also returned to Christchurch. Other additions include promising young lock Hamish Munro, recruited from Christchurch, and outside back, Mason Rosvall, who has played age-group representative rugby for Canterbury. Dave Robertson and Graeme Turner will coach the side this year.
■ CHRISTCHURCH Home ground: Christchurch Park Last year: Eighth Look out for: William Mills, Nick Mannering, Angus Middleton. Eighth place and Christchurch don't really go that well together so the team is desperate to get back into the top six and challenge for the title. It is Christchurch's 150th season, making a failure this year not an option. The club have promoted last year's successful colts coach Daniel O'Brien to join Matt Mustchin as co-coaches and four of the colts team have come up with him. O'Brien was pleased with the work the side had done in the offseason and the coaching staff and players expect big things this season.
■ HIGH SCHOOL OLD BOYS Home ground: Bob Deans at Hagley Last year: Fourth Look out for: Joe Taylor, Fletcher Smith, Michael Barry. A pre-season camp at the expense of an extra game has helped gel the HSOB team who again boast plenty of experience. Having five players away with the Crusader Knights squad does interrupt their build-up slightly, but those players will come back match-fit. Nathan Mauger has taken over as head coach from younger brother Aaron and Reuben Thorne is no longer on the coaching staff. Though it is one of the more experienced squads, Old Boys still have a number of exciting young players in the mix including Paea Fa'anunu's younger brother Tui.
■ LINCOLN UNIVERSITY Home ground: Lincoln University Last year: 11th Look out for: Sam Gammie, Nick Werahiko, Sam Clarke. Massive player turnover and limited time to develop their side are usual problems for the Lincoln University coaches. Lincoln Uni have just a handful of players returning from last season, but are looking good. Three pre-season games, including a one-point loss to the strong Otago University side, and an appearance at the Oxford pre-season tournament made them one of the most-worked sides. But the coaching staff are happy with the players they have. Don't expect Lincoln University to be an easy place to pick up points.
■ LINWOOD Home ground: Linfield Park Last year: Sixth Look out for: Jono Kitto, Jeff Lepa, Alex Hodgman. Raining on Christchurch's 150th celebrations by tipping them up in the entree to the Crying Towel match last weekend, Linwood have already showed they can play. Linwood's young team are a year older and a year wiser, with handy St Andrew's College leaver, Richie Mo'unga, at No 10 covering for the injured Zac Southern. Head coach Scott Hansen said "the very talented" Jimmy Wells and Aaron Smith - not the All Black - were classy and excited about the 2013 season.
■ MARIST-ALBION Home ground: South Hagley Last year: Seventh Look out for: Josh Manning, Shayne Anderson, Anthony Tailua. Marist-Albion's first half of last season was strong, their second half was poor. This year they're looking for more consistency and the fact they've lost just three players from last season means they should be able to do it. It is a side with a nice balance of experience and youth and once more the likely to feature at the pointy end of the season. Chris Hay's side's trip to Tauranga to play in the Easter Marist tournament also has them raring to go. They begin their campaign today with a potentially tricky trip to Lincoln University.
■ NEW BRIGHTON Home ground: Rawhiti Domain
Last year: Fifth (Plate Winners) Look out for: Lucky Mulipola New Brighton's pre-season has not been good. They took 12 fit forwards into a game against Shirley and came out with just four. Most have bounced back and will be ready for today or in the next few weeks, but it will have surely given the new coaching staff a scare. Former successful Burnside coach Steve Ellis takes the reins this season. His assistant is Scott Pawson, the club's winning div two coach from last year. They've picked up a handy players in the offseason including Lucky Mulipola, and Mitch Alcock has returned to help fix last year's front row woes. New Brighton have their sights set on big things.
■ SHIRLEY Home ground: Burwood Park Last year: Ninth (Bowl winners) Look out for: Josh Reeves, George Akerie, Mavae Tomasi Coach Allan Lindsay says his team are in a positive frame of mind leading into the new season after pre-season victories over Southbridge, Lincoln and New Brighton (19-17). He was pleased with his team's fitness and work ethic in training leading into the start of the new season and said his team was "probably six to eight weeks ahead of where we were this time last year". Shirley's midfield has been boosted after picking up hard-running centre Jerry Meafou from New Brighton. Josh Reeves will captain the side this season and should be an influential figure again in the No 10 jersey. Lindsay expected his team to be solid up front with the bulk of the forward pack returning from 2012.
■ SUMNER Home ground: St Leonard's Square Last year: 12th Look out for: Heath Gibb, Josh Leszczuk, Lewis Devery. It's very fitting Sumner's first game is against Shirley when there are more senior Shirley caps in the Sumner coaching team than the Shirley playing XV. New coach Reece Allen is fizzing about his side's first-up game and excited about the coming season. Contracted sevens player Milford Keresoma adds speed and skill and 13-test Japanese player Nozomu Fujita adds power to the front row. Depth too is much better as Sumner look like they've found their feet in the top flight.
■ SYDENHAM Home ground: Sydenham Park
Last year: Runners-up Look out for: Harry Jones , Anthony Tiatia. With five of last year's squad now tied up full time with the Crusaders, it would be easy to write last year's beaten finalists off. That might not be wise. The nucleus of last year's side is still there with a few of the better colts and div two players bolstering the squad. Sydenham boast strong depth and after a handy pre-season should be ready. They were one of last year's best prepared and structured teams, expect the same this season.
■ UNIVERSITY Home ground: Ilam Fields Last year: Third Players in watch: Mitch Graham, Rob Sullivan, Matt Moulds. Like Lincoln Uni, the Varsity club have huge turnover of players and a limited preparation time. They've lost some key players again, but the players they do have are working well and have been training hard. University will again contribute a good handful of players to the provincial team later but their main priority is starting strongly and being a consistent force. New coach Sid Tauamiti was asked who his biggest acquisition was, he replied: "probably Glenn Fyall". Fyall will be Tauamiti's assistant after teaching Tauamiti in a past life.
Draw for week one: Sydenham v Linwood – Rugby Park, Lincoln University v Marist-Albion – Lincoln University, HSOB v Belfast – Bob Deans, Christchurch v New Brighton – Christchurch Park, University v Burnside – Ilam, Sumner v Shirley – St Leonards. All matches start today at 2.45pm.