MORE than half the starting line-up will be experiencing their first taste of Heartland championship rugby when Wairarapa-Bush squares off against Thames Valley at Paeroa tomorrow.
Five of the pack will be making their debuts in this competition, prop Matt Kawana, hooker Andrew Makalio and the loose forward trio, flankers Brendon Campbell and Chris Raymond and No 8 So’otala Fa’aso’o. That leaves only prop Kurt Simmonds and locks Lachie McFadzean and James Goodger among those up front who have been there, done that.
In the backs, halfback Cody Whittaker, second-five Andy Humberstone and centre Viliami Hala haven’t been part of Heartland action before and this will be the first appearance of first-five and captain Tim Priest in the Wairarapa-Bush colours.
He was a prolific scorer for West Coast last season.
Making up the backline are wings Cameron Hayton and Tipene Haira and fullback Nick Olson with the decision to play Haira on the wing perhaps the most interesting selection of all.
Most of his rugby has been either at first-five or fullback and he was in the No 15 jersey when Wairarapa-Bush beat Poverty Bay 53-17 in a non-championship fixture in Gisborne last weekend.
Wing requires a different skillset and how Haira copes with that challenge remains to be seen.
The ease of the Gisborne win will have boosted the confidence in the Wairarapa-Bush camp but they will also be wary of history repeating itself. Last season’s Heartland programme was preceded by a 70-point thumping of Poverty Bay only for Wairarapa-Bush to be on the end of a decent beating by King Country in their opening championship game.
They only had East Coast behind them on the competition table by the end of pool play.
While it is accepted that rugby is a team game, the efforts of their three Auckland “imports”, Makalio, Fa’aso’o and Hala, will probably be crucial for Wairarapa-Bush tomorrow.
The more ball they get in hand, the better the chances of a Wairarapa-Bush victory as all three are powerful runners with the ability to open up the opposition defences.
The combination of Fa’oso’o with Raymond and Campbell in the looser phases of the forward game promises to be of huge importance too.
Thames Valley are a side who have a history of being rugged and physical in the breakdown situations and it will be vital that Wairarapa-Bush compete well in that area, and collectively rather than individually.
Given a regular supply of quality ball, the Wairarapa-Bush backs certainly have the potential to make a decent impact.
Priest is a wily tactician in the pivotal role and Humberstone and Hala in midfield aren’t afraid to take the shortest route to the goal-line.
And there is enough pace and flair in the back three to take advantage of any space created for them.
It is also comforting to know that if the Paeroa weather turns nasty and ground conditions become heavy that the likes of Whittaker and Priest have a solid enough kicking game to keep their pack on the front foot.
By Gary Caffell – Wairarapa Times-Age