Christchurch City Council
Via The Press - by Tony Smith
James Baxendale is just back from seven weeks in Europe but he reckons he'll be ready for the Canterbury Bulls' must-win National Provincial Premiership rugby league match in Auckland.
Head coach Andrew Auimatagi confirmed Baxendale will be in the lineup for the Akarana Falcons clash on Saturday after missing the first two round robin games.
The Bulls must beat the Falcons and finish ahead of the Counties Manukau Stingrays on points differential to make the October 7 grand final - hence Auimatagi's desire to fast track his most experienced player.
Baxendale, 31, hasn't played since early August and admitted "a bit of beer was drunk" on his sojourn in Croatia and other exotic destinations.
But both and Auimatagi are backing his residual fitness and competitiveness to get him through against Akarana - along with the adrenalin of the occasion.
"I left the Monday after the club grand final was originally meant to be before the season got pushed out a week and I got back last Thursday," Baxendale said.
"Andrew tried to get me to play last weekend [against Waikato], but I wasn't quite ready, but I'm looking forward for the Auckland game and hopefully we'll get another game after that."
Auimatagi said Baxendale had always looked after his fitness and he had trained well on Tuesday.
"Once I get on the field I will be right," Baxendale said.
"I'm pretty competitive so when the whistle blows, I will be doing my best."
Some players might have been tempted to hang their boots up for the season after such a long holiday, but Baxendale always hoped to make the last game of the Bulls' Albert Baskerville Trophy tilt.
"When you get a wee bit older, any chance you get to play for Canterbury, you take. You never know when it might your last one
"I thought if I could get back in time, I would definitely play and try and help of the few of the younger blokes."
Baxendale made his Bulls debut in 2006, but missed a few seasons after opting to concentrate on his cricket career.
He has been one of the first names on the team sheet in recent seasons and captained the team in 2016.
The son of 1970s Kiwis forward Ray Baxendale, he will have a leadership role on Saturday, alongside Paul Sauni, who led the Bulls to a win over Waikato after original skipper Alex Todd was ruled out with a broken hand.
Baxendale, who has played alongside Todd since 2009, said the front rower's experience would be missed but he has been pleased with how well some of the younger Bulls have stepped up this term
"It's quite a different team from last year, but some guys have been given an opportunity and they've taken it. It's been really pleasing to see young guys stepping up to this level."
Baxendale will definitely start for the Bulls, but he isn't sure what position he will play yet.
Auimatagi said his stalwart can play "up the middle" at loose forward or "on the edge" in the second row and can also slot into the halves.
Baxendale spent the club season at scrumhalf after the Hornby Panthers lost Tevin Arona to the Warriors and "also had 40 minutes there for the Bulls last year".
"I enjoyed it, it's definitely a lot easier on the body," he quipped.
Playing in the halves was "challenging" because of the need for more communication and organisation, but he "wouldn't be too fazed if I have to play there".
Baxendale said Waikato gave Akarana a scare in the first round, but the Aucklanders "blew out" Counties Manukau 40-22 last week.
"Every Auckland team you play are always pretty tough. You've got to control the ruck because if you don't, it's going to be a long day because they've always talented players in the halves and outside backs."
As well as Baxendale, the Bulls will also welcome back utility Dene Grace from parental duty and Auimatagi hoped work commitments will not prevent New Zealand Residents fullback Erwin Sauni travelling.
He said Joseph Mika was out with a knee injury but Jesse Rogers might be back from a leg problem after missing the Waikato game.
Prop Jiordan Fidow-Kele took "a knock to the knee" last week, but is expected to be fit to face the Falcons.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Clarke - CMG Sports