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The Halswell Hornets are most teams' tip to challenge champions Hornby for the Canterbury rugby league premiership title after bolstering their ranks with two South Island players.
Canterbury Rugby Football League general manager Graeme Sole said yesterday prop Jaye Pukepuke and centre Manu Weepu are free to play today after Halswell paid transfer fees to the Celebration Lions late this week.
Celebration had been reluctant to release the pair and a standoff between the two clubs resulted in appeals by both clubs to the CRFL and New Zealand Rugby League.
Clubs are required to pay a $4000 transfer fee for a representative player. Sole said Halswell had paid $8000 for Pukepuke and Weepu.
They will make their Halswell debuts today – against Celebration, which should add some extra spice to the Halswell Domain clash.
Matches will be played at suburban club grounds this year, with the code's traditional headquarters at Rugby League Park unavailable after earthquake damage.
"We are writing it off for the season at this stage because of the damage to the grandstands, and the offices have got a yellow sticker," Sole said. "We've ruled it out for the year but if we can get back earlier, that's a bonus. If we don't, at least we're ready for it."
The Aranui Eagles will play all their games at away venues with Wainoni Park out of action after major liquefaction damage. "My heart goes out to Aranui, but there's no other way around it," Sole said.
The Northern Bulldogs lost their clubrooms and pitches at Kaiapoi's Murphy Park in the September 4 earthquake. But club secretary Nicky Churton said the Woodend Rugby Club "have helped us out" by loaning their fields and clubhouse at Gladstone Park.
Despite the quake upheaval, the season is starting on time. Sole said premier, premier reserve and junior grades from six years to 18 years kick off today with divisions one and two senior beginning next Saturday.
Today's opening round premiership draw (all games kick off at 2.45pm)Aranui Eagles v Hornby Panthers, Leslie Park. Halswell Hornets v Celebration Lions, Halswell Domain. Northern Bulldogs v Linwood Keas, Gladstone Park, Woodend. Papanui Tigers v Riccarton Knights, Papanui Domain
Coach: Jimmy Hema
The Aranui Eagles are upbeat about their 2011 prospects despite being forced to play all their games away.
Second-year coach Jimmy Hema has lost two key players, with try-scoring outside back Sai Sakura, who moving to Auckland since the last earthquake and scrumhalf Tama Walker being snapped up by the Celebration Lions.
But he has three players back from the Papanui Tigers, brothers Caleb and Nepia Reweti and Regan Marriott, and has signed Jamie Rangihuna after 150 division one games for the New Brighton Rugby Clubl. Rangihuna, whose uncle John Rangihuna was a longtime Eagles coach, will take over Walker’s playmaking role in the halves.
Hema still has a powerful pack, anchored by former Canterbury Bulls Alex Timo, Peter Asi and J J Smith while Mike Nichols-Caine and Josh Ka will still feature in the Eagles backline.
Aranui has traditionally drawn some of the competition’s best crowds to Wainoni Park and Hema said the club was hoping to get some games at MacFarlane Park so their fans do not have to travel too far across town every weekend.
Coach: Takofi Kalauta
Celebration officials were unavailable for comment on their team but they Lions have lost Weepu and Pukepuke to Halswell while South Island standoff half Simon Mounga is also understood to be playing rugby union this year.
But the Lions have had great service from South Island representatives Bruce Havea and Kyle and Kasi Leka and they will form the nucleus again with hooker Reuben Tafua and experienced forward John Tafua. Former Aranui scrumhalf Tama Walker is on their team sheet today and standoff half Teariki Tangiiti (ex-Linwood) and Tane Chick (a former Bulldog) area also listed.
While the Lions do not have John Kaukura or Phil Maireroa, although they still will not be taken lightly by their rivals.
Coach: Shane Endacott
Signing South Island representatives Jaye Pukepuke and Manu Weepu is the icing on the cake for new Hornets coach Shane Endacott.
The former Warrior admits he has inherited a handy squad from former Kiwis assistant-coach Phil Prescott, who moulded a young bunch into playoffs contenders last season. “The boys have been well-coached by Phil. I’m just trying to continue where he left off after doing a great job for the last two years.’’
Weepu’s brother, William, who has played at NRL clubs in Sydney, may also feature for Halswell this year, though he is injured and still waiting for an international clearance.
The club have lost five players from last year, including inspirational captain Shane Beyers, who has retired after more than a decade of yeoman service. Jeremy Tyree and Brad Austin are playing in Australia, goalkicking forward Michael Jordan has hung up his boots and centre Kane Walker is also absent.
But half Shaun Scott has returned from the Junior Warriors and Papua New Guinea international Joe Pombo is back in the pack alongside young Canterbury Bulls reps Phil Nati and Robert Butler. Top try-scorer Jacob Paul, Josh Everett, Jamie Nuttridge, Sam Kelso and Jade Hoy make up a youthful contingent with Halswell set to field nine players aged 20 or under.
Endacott, who coached Celebration two years ago, said Halswell were always aiming for a top-four place but after the 11th-hour acquisition of Pukepuke and the Weepus he expects the Hornets to be “right up there’’.
Player-coach: Corey Lawrie
Former Warrior Corey Lawrie has a hard act to follow after adding the coaching workload to his backrow duties.
He takes over from Scott Nixon who stepped down with a 100 per cent strike-rate after leading Hornby to the 2009 and 2010 premiership titles. “It’s put a bit of pressure on me after Niko’s last two years,’’ Lawrie admitted. “But Aaron Harris is going to be my assistant and run Saturdays for me.’’
The new coaching team believe they have a stronger squad this season with former Parramatta Eels and Melbourne Storm Toyota Cup under-20 representative Rulon Nutira returning to his junior club, front rower Leo To’omalatai and Mike Burrows back after breaks and former Halswell half James Henry taking over Harris’ old jumper.
South Island player of the year James Baxendale is also back after a short stint in Queensland while the Panthers still boast experienced campaigners Jonny Limmer, Donny Aitken, Craig Smith and Mike Kingston.
Lawrie said Nutira would be a big asset as a ball playing, line breaking second rower. “We should be strong on the edges with Rulon and Barry Alaimao on one side and Baxy and Craig Smith on the other.’’
He sees Halswell as a front runner this season after playing the Hornets in a pre-season trial. “they carved us up eight tries to two and bullied us across the whole paddock.’’
But Hornby have a handy knack of peaking at the right time and the Panthers will not relinquish their title without a fight.
Keas coach Charlie Schooner is almost spoiled for choice on his premier coaching return.
The former forward, who led Linwood to the title in 2005 and another grand final in 2006, said he had 48 premier and premier reserve players at training this week. “It’s been right off the Richter scale… Teni Tuli, who’s played 10, 11, 12, maybe 13 years for the premiers is in the Bs this week’’.
Former New Zealand Residents hooker Nathan Sherlock is back for Linwood after taking last season off. Schooner also hopes to complete second rower-centre Paul Sauni’s transfer from Celebration and secure his younger brother Irwin too. Another brother, Matt, has played for the Keas for a few years.
Big forward Jason Bamford has joined Linwood from the Northern Bulldogs and former Bulls utilty Andrew Auimatagi is fit again after injury problems last year. But South Island prop Alex Todd will have an operation to repair an arm fracture after today’s game.
Schooner can still call on industrious South Island loose forward Agaese Fiso, centres Phil Wahnig and Siona Tuiloma and second rower Matt Muliolo.
He has been drilling the team in fitness since late last year “and working on our D [defence]’’ and feels the Keas “are definitely a top-four team’’.
Coach: Stu Mee
Club stalwart Stu Mee, who led the Bulldogs to their 2007 title triumph, admits it’s going to be a challenging year.
He has inherited a “massive hole’’ in the playing ranks with retirements and defections and the club lacking the numbers to field a reserve grade team. “This is probably the third time since the 07 grand final we’ve had to rebuild the side,’’ Mee noted.
Gone are influential former skipper Kyle Reuben through suspension, veteran forward Les Becks and 43-year-old wing Allan Couch (both retired) and Bamford to Linwood. Second rower Tony Loffhagen broke his arm at work pre-season and prop Glen Wiki has had business commitments but may be available on Saturdays.
South Island representative team captain Josh Reuben is back to guide the backline along with Rainier McKenzie, who has played more than 150 premier games while Ian Ferguson, a member of the 2003 grand final team, has made a comeback.
Mee said the Bulldogs would apply to the New Zealand Rugby League dispensation to field players from their under-18 team if they have to cover for injuries in the premier ranks. “We just want to keep our heads above water this year. We know we’re on a bit of a knife edge. We just need to hold on for another season and a few of our 18s into premier football. If we lose our premiership place, it might be tough to get back.’’
Coach: Brent Stuart
Canterbury Bulls and South Island coach Brent Stuart is getting accustomed to rebuilding Tigers teams.
The former Kiwis prop has coached Papanui to two grand finals in three years. But he will have to “start afresh again’’ this season after losing “around 11 players’’ from his 2010 squad. Many of his key men are gone, including veteran forward Kreskin David has retired while backs Pani Manawatu and James Wihongi, South Island forward Alex Simpson and his brother Gerard are playing in Australia, Nepia Rewiti and Regan Marriott have returned to the Aranui Eagles and standoff half Izic Placid is also out of circulation.
But the Tigers will be bolstered by the return of former Canterbury Bulls scrumhalf Duane Wineti after a two-year suspension and Stuart has promoted some of the club’s promising reserve graders.
He will build his team around Wineti, Dylan Loversidge, who has made his representative bow with the Bulls, Tyrone Edmonds, Chad Tainui, Aaron Wansbrough and brothers Rex and Sue Aliivaa.
Despite the changes, Stuart is hopeful of “making the top four’’ again. “The boys have had a couple of trials and have shown enough to suggest to me they are going to be competitive this year.’’
However, he will have four regulars out this weekend due to New Zealand touch team trials and another couple are on the injured list.
Coach: Brent Ringdahl
As the premiership’s most experienced coach_ this is his 12th season _ Brent Ringdahl is as enthusiastic as ever about the Knights’ campaign.
Riccarton have recruited “a lot of rugby guys’’ and have “a lot more depth this year’’, he says says.
South Island fullback Jermahl Carroll, who wants to transfer to Papanui, is the only major off-season loss. The Knights have retained their regular nucleus, including the experienced Shane Tamatea, Tonga Mounga, Jared Neho and prop Elia Elia, who debuted for the Canterbury Bulls against the West Coast in the Pike River charity game in Greymouth.
Ringdahl said Hamish Barclay would be available again “for about two-thirds of the season’’ and his ability to play a number of positions in the pack and the backline would be invaluable.
“The guys have been together for about four years now and it seems that the penny’s dropped. They realise they’ve got to train to succeed.’’ Ringdahl believes the new acquisitions had brought some real enthusiasm to Riccarton’s ranks which had rubbed off on the stalwarts.
He agreed Hornby had “set the benchmark’’ for other premiership teams to aspire to, while Halswell were “looking good and obviously Linwood have been [near the top] for so long.’’