Christchurch City Council
Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke - CMG Sports
You could forgive Rockcote Canterbury Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi for having a sense of déjà vu ahead of this Saturday’s do-or-die NZRL National Premiership clash with Akarana Falcons at Auckland’s Trust Stadium.
As the Bulls approached their encounter with the Falcons in the last round-robin clash in 2016, there were several scenarios that could have seen the Bulls through to their third straight final. Counties Manukau Stingrays’ 82-12 demolition of Wellington Orcas left the Bulls with just one path to the decider, however – a win over the Falcons by 19-plus points.
Canterbury fell just short, winning 38-26 after trailing by 12 points at halftime.
The Bulls’ first-up loss to the Stingrays in the 2017 competition followed by a bounce-back win over Waikato last week has left them in a similar situation, albeit with the odds stacked slightly more in their favour this time around.
Akarana have won both games so far and have a for-and-against of +26, while Canterbury (-2) and Counties Manukau (-12) have won one game each, and Waikato (-12) are winless.
But Auimatagi is not letting the complicated ladder permutations get in the way of his side’s preparations for Saturday’s showdown.
“We’re in the same spot again, so we’ve just got to focus on getting the job done and hopefully everything falls in our favour,” he said.
“We’ve just got to firstly get the win and hope for the best, whether that be Waikato getting the upset or holding Counties to a close game.
“We’ve just got to throw everything into this game against the Falcons.”
The Canterbury-Akarana game kicks off at 1.15pm, before the Counties-Waikato game at 3pm in a Premiership double-header at Trust Stadium. Playing first eliminates any distractions, Auimatagi believes.
“It definitely helps us (playing first). We’ve just got to focus on getting the win, that’s all we can control at the end of the day.
“It’s a positive playing first as opposed to knowing the scoreline we need to achieve.”
After a slow start hampered the Bulls in a 28-22 loss to the Stingrays at AMI Stadium in Round 1, they responded superbly with a 32-28 victory over the plucky Waikato outfit in Hamilton last Sunday.
Waikato proved they were no easybeats by giving Akarana a fright in Round 1 before going down by just eight points, and Canterbury’s away win was achieved despite missing captain Alex Todd and back-rower Jesse Rogers through injury, and having fullback Erwin Sauni and hooker Dene Grace unavailable.
“I was really happy with the performance,” Auimatagi said.
“We had to reshuffle the team, the guys that came in added a bit and the guys that were there against Counties improved their performance, so that’s all we can ask for.”
Reuben Te Amo produced another eye-catching display in Todd’s front-row spot after starring at lock against the Stingrays, while hulking winger Josh Aileone made it three tries in two games with a double, and slick centre Blake Thompson and dummy-half livewire Chase Kereama-Williams scored for the second week in a row.
Kereama-Williams has arguably been the pick of the Bulls’ extensive contingent of representative rookies, impressing off the bench on debut before enjoying a sizzling performance as starting hooker against Waikato.
“Chase is definitely a standout, he’s just so dangerous around the ruck,” Auimatagi enthused.
“If we can get some good go-forward he’s got the ability to really hurt the opposition. He was great again against Waikato.”
Erwin Sauni is again unavailable, but the versatile Grace will be back in the fullback role filled admirably last week by Hornby teammate Tau Tauvale, and the Bulls have also been boosted by the return of another Panther, veteran James Baxendale, who recently returned from a Europe holiday.
“James will come straight into the starting team at second-row,” Auimatagi confirmed.
“So he’ll add a lot of energy and leadership to the team, the boys are pretty happy to have him back, and no doubt he’ll be at his best.”
Auimatagi revealed there were some areas Canterbury needs to improve if they are to topple the defending champion Akarana side.
“Our attack was pretty good in patches, but I’m still not so happy with our completion rate – that’s the big one where we’ll need to be better against Akarana, who thumped Counties Manukau 40-22 last weekend.
“When we do control the ball we play pretty well, so that’s going to be a focus area for us again.
“(The Falcons) were a bit rusty in week one, and in week two they got up for the crosstown rivalry game. They’ve got two games under their belts so their combinations will be a bit better, and they’ve got some dangerous players right across the park.
“Firstly we’ve just got to control the ball, make our tackles and control the ruck, which will give us a good shot.”
Then at fulltime, it’s time to get the calculators out for Auimatagi and the Bulls.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30 – TRUST STADIUM TRIPLE-HEADER (live on Sky Sport 2)
11: 30am – Curtain-raiser: New Zealand 18s v Australian
1:15pm – NZRL National Premiership Round 3: Akarana Falcons v Canterbury Bulls
3.00pm – NZRL National Premiership Round 3: Counties Manukau Stingrays v Waikato