Whanganui up for the challenge in hectic month
Home & Garden
John B Phillips
The stage is set for a month of must-win matches by Steelform Whanganui against four of the heavyweights of the 2021 Bunnings Warehouse Heartland championship. The Butcher Boys easily recaptured the Sir Colin Meads Memorial Log with a 48-13 win over King Country in Taupo¯ last weekend and share the fourth rung of the qualifying points ladder with Mid Canterbury. Now comes the tougher opposition, starting with defence of the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup against Horowhenua-Kapiti at Cooks Gardens on Saturday. Whanganui have generally held a whip-hand against the Levin-based union since the first encounter in 1903. There were 49 wins from 58 games against Horowhenua (average score of 23-9) until 1996 and 18 victories in 22 matches over Horowhenua-Kapiti since 1997 (average score 34-18). Since Heartland Rugby started in 2006, the Butcher Boys have won 11 of 13 fixtures (average score 35-19) including winning all seven home games. In the Steel Cup it was six-zip over Horowhenua and 7-2 against H-K with respective average scores of 34-7 and 30-19. Horowhenua-Kapiti, however, have enjoyed a successful Heartland start this winter and are one of three unbeaten teams at the halfway qualifying stage. Although three of the victories have been against Coastal opponents — 28-21 v West Coast in Greymouth and 27-12 v Buller in Westport last Saturday, plus 38-31 v East Coast at Otaki — there was a fine 25-17 win over defending Meads Cup champions North Otago in Levin. H-K invariably field a solid set of forwards and so far this year Manawatu loan hooker Bryn Gordon and lock Daniel Smith have each scored three times with four other members of the pack, including skipper Ryan Shelford, also scoring in the team’s 14 tries. The forwards also include ex-NZ Heartland prop Scott Cameron who like fellow front rower David McErlean, has 50-plus rep caps. Wellington’s Conor Strang, a Player of Origin, and Manawatu’s Benedict Grant are loan loose forwards. Halfback Jack Tatu-Robertson has kicked 48 points this season in a backline that includes Hawke’s Bay first five Ash Robinson-Bartlett, a former NZ Touch MVP player, former NZ Heartland outside back Willie Paia’aua, and Wellington goal-kicking inside back James So’oialo. Whanganui have scored 21 tries this season, seven more than H-K, and 152 points with a differential of 85 as compared with the opposition’s 118 pts (47 differential). Centre Kameli Kuruyabaki has scored five times with two each for Peceli Malanicagi and Alekesio Vakarorogo plus forwards Roman Tutauha, Jamie Hughes and Semi Vodesese. Ethan Robinson has kicked 21 points for Whanganui and Dane Whale matched Kuruyabaki’s 25 points with a try and goal kicks. After Saturday’s game Whanganui face three tough opponents — away trips to tackle top of the table South Canterbury and second-placed Thames Valley with defending champions North Otago wedged in between, here at Cooks Gardens on October 30. H-K have an easier road apart from hosting the Swamp Foxes on Saturday week, being home to winless Wairarapa-Bush and away to seventh-positioned Poverty Bay. Unfortunately South Canterbury and Thames Valley do not clash in the qualifying rounds. From a local point of view the mission is quite clear — any further losses will almost certainly wreck the hopes of a seventh Meads Cup and possibly a Lochore Cup consolation. Providing there are no more injury worries and costly on-field hiccups, Whanganui have the experience and ability to beat any side. But that will only eventuate with a final five weeks of dedication to fitness training and match day application. For the top players there is also the goal of possible NZ Heartland selection. Milestone for Viki Tofa Solid Whanganui prop Viki Tofa would love to celebrate his 50th game for the union with victory at Cooks Gardens on Saturday. Tofa, at 1.72m the shortest front rower in the squad, has started 41 times and run on as a substitute on eight occasions during his first-class career which started against South Canterbury at Timaru in 2014. He helped Whanganui win the historic trio of Meads Cup finals in 2015-16-17 and the Lochore Cup in 2014. Viki, who helps keep fit as a boxing trainer with his father Eddie, played in three successive Ranfurly Shield challenges — 2016 v Waikato, 2017 v Canterbury and 2018 v Taranaki. He has a high work rate at both rep and club level, helping Marist reach the Tasman Tanning premier club semifinals for the first time in four seasons this year. That inspired him to consider returning to rep rugby after a twoyear absence because of work as a roading contractor. A chat with the Whanganui coaches, especially about his weight (around 150kg), saw him shed 15kg and he has impressed with his allround play in the present Heartland campaign. He has surprising mobility for a front row forward, is a hard-working defender with a reliable low tackle, and fits in well with the team’s attacking style of rugby. He is the fourth member of the 2021 squad to reach a match milestone in the past month, joining utility back Dane Whale in the 50-plus ranks with hooker Roman Tutauha and halfback Lindsay Horrocks passing the 75-plus brigade. Two front row deaths Whanganui rugby has suffered a double blow with the recent deaths of two former representative front row forwards — Murray Ahern and Kevin Willis. Murray, son of 1972-73 WRFU chairman Doug Ahern, played six times for the union under his Marist coach Ron McPhun in 1969. There were three victories, all on Spriggens Park, including 11-9 over a strong Auckland XV. Murray, aged 74, assisted long-time friend Grant McKinnon with numerous club and rep match radio commentaries. Kevin (Arty) Willis, who died at the age of 65, was a solid Kaierau forward who played 21 games for the union between 1987 and 1989. He propped the 1988 scrum with match centurion Adrian Bull (Hunterville) when Whanganui finished runners-up to Thames Valley in the Div 3 championship. His last game was against Taranaki at Spriggens Park on Queen’s Birthday the following year, the year Whanganui won the national title.