Division Three R1 NPC previews

Thursday, August 18, 2005    

Horowhenua-Kapiti v King Country, Levin

King Country has still to beat Horowhenua-Kapiti since it dropped back to Division Three in 2002. Last year the two sides played out an exciting 20-20 draw, but Horowhenua-Kapiti has prevailed in the other three Division Three matches, with King Country not having registered a win in this match up since a 39-8 success in the old North Island Division Two championship 21 years ago.

“They’ve definitely had the wood on us, so I suppose you could say it is time for us to set the record straight,” King Country coach Kurt McQuilken says. “We don’t know that much about them, but their record against us entitles them to our respect and I’m sure it will be a tough game down there.”

McQuilken, who enjoyed a long playing career with King Country before finishing off his career in Ireland, is in his first season coaching the Rams, being assisted by another former long serving King Country player, hooker Paul Mitchell. Both were members of the King Country side that played in Division One during the early and mid-nineties.

The new coaching partnership has made a promising start, with King Country capping off a four-match preparation with a win over Hawke’s Bay B last weekend. “It’s gone well so far, but it’s from this weekend that the money is up, so here’s where it really counts,” McQuilken says.
In Horowhenua-Kapiti, King Country is striking a well-seasoned opponent first-up, with the home side full of confidence on the back of three wins from as many warm-up matches; the latest of which was a commanding performance against a Manawatu B side last Saturday.

“We are pretty happy with how we’ve gone so far, but while the pre-season wins have created confidence, the record doesn’t count for a lot,” Horowhenua-Kapiti coach Peter Kemp says.
“There was nothing between these two teams last year and I’m sure Saturday’s game will be another close one.”

Kemp took Horowhenua-Kapiti to the final in 2002 (losing to North Otago) before taking charge of Manawatu last year. He says last year’s semifinalists have a good mix of experienced players and newcomers, and are looking to kick on after losing out to Poverty Bay on the first weekend of the 2004 playoffs.

“We have prepared well. Hopefully we can back that up with our performance and put ourselves in a position to go a couple of steps further than last year,” Kemp says.

Kick-off: Saturday 20 August at 2.30pm
Referee: Kelvin Deaker (Hawke’s Bay)
TAB odds: Horowhenua-Kapiti $1.25, King Country $3.50

Buller v Wairarapa Bush, Westport

The expectations are running high in Masterton and its surrounds as Wairarapa Bush endeavours to build on the achievement of reaching last year’s final.

The one-time Division One outfit starts with a potentially tricky trip to Westport where they will be looking to defend an excellent record against Buller since the two unions first met in 1999.
Wairarapa Bush has won five of the six matches since then, although the sole defeat in that time was suffered away from home, which has added significance given that the side is on the road this weekend.

While Buller enters the new competition having lost 10 in a row in NPC since a 25-13 win over West Coast in 2003, Wairarapa Bush coach Peter Russell is taking nothing for granted.

“Everyone starts the season off a level mark so we are guaranteed nothing,” Russell says. “Last year was an enjoyable experience for everyone to be involved in. We are certainly looking to build on that, and it has given the players a lot of confidence, but we will only be able to achieve that sort of success again through a lot of hard work.”

Unlike many of the union’s rivals in the division, Wairarapa Bush has not suffered a high player turnover since the last campaign, with 19 of last season’s squad still involved. That is an advantage, in terms of continuity, but Russell believes the trip away in week one will also assist in bringing the team together.

“We had a camp last weekend at Massey University, and had beaten Wanganui in a pre-season game before that, but everyone is looking forward to getting away and spending a little bit more time together,” Russell says.

New Buller coach Johnny Smith reports a high turnover of players from last year, with almost half of his squad new to NPC, although the team has made an encouraging start to the year.
Pre-season wins over a Canterbury Maori XV and Marlborough B added to the confidence gained from a big win over West Coast in the annual Rundle Cup match earlier in the year.
The Buller side assembled for a camp in Westport two weeks ago and Smith says the atmosphere was pretty positive.

“The NPC is a special competition for the guys to be part of, and having so many players who are new to it has given our preparations even more of an edge,” he says. “There will probably be a few nerves before the first game and Wairarapa Bush will be a tough one first up, having done so well last year, but the players are really keen and looking forward to it.”

Buller will field four loan players from Wellington clubs and Smith says their experience will help his side enormously.

Kick-off: Saturday 20 August at 2.30pm
Referee: Josh Noonan (Canterbury)
TAB odds: Buller $5, Wairarapa Bush $1.13

Mid Canterbury v Thames Valley, Ashburton

Coach Richard Taylor was a member of the only previous Thames Valley side to win an NPC match at the Ashburton Showgrounds. While Thames Valley have lost twice there since, he believes that playing away first up will help his side this time.

Taylor, who played in the 20-15 win over Mid-Canterbury in 1994 and the 12-12 draw between the two sides at their first ever meeting in the South Island five years earlier, reckons the trip away will bring the side together.

“Our preparation has only been average, with a win and a loss against Auckland and Waikato divisional sides, but things are starting to gel and going down south and being able to concentrate solely on rugby will help that process,” he says.

Thames Valley and Mid Canterbury have met seven times in the Air New Zealand NPC, with the North Island side holding a four-two advantage in terms of wins, although one of their defeats was a heavy 42-8 loss in Ashburton six years ago.

The Swamp Foxes dropped down a division after conceding 510 points in just eight games last year, but the fresh start in the new division has also been accompanied by a large number of personnel changes.

“We’ve got nine guys back from last year,” says Taylor, who is being assisted by former West Coast coach Pene Reuben. “A lot of the older guys who’d been hanging in there, and helped to keep us in Division Two for as long as we did, have given it away now. That’s added to our challenge – in terms of having to find replacements.”

One new recruit is former Auckland and Nelson Bays’ hooker Brad Morris, who has recently taken up a posting as Thames Valley’s Rugby Development Officer. Sean Fitzpatrick’s one-time understudy with Auckland brings with him valuable experience, which Taylor knows will be vital this weekend.

“Mid Canterbury teams always have strong forwards and I’m sure this year will be no different,” Taylor says. “So it will be a tough one to start, but you’ve got to play them all some time!”
Mid Canterbury was one of just two teams to lower the colours of eventual division champions Poverty Bay last year but the side faded, losing back-to-back matches to Wairarapa Bush which ended hopes of a return to Division Two.

Co-coach Mark O’Grady says the preparation for this year’s competition has not been helped by having a large number of last year’s team unavailable, with just six survivors from the side that reached the semifinals.

Fortunately former Crusaders loose forward Clark McLeod is amongst them, providing much-needed experience, while veteran back Jason Feutz is closing in on a century of games for the union. Feutz, who is the sole survivor from the Mid Canterbury side that won the Division Three title in 1994, also shared in the union’s title-winning campaign in 1998.

After losing a Hanan Shield challenge 17-57 to Division Two side North Otago two weeks ago, Mid Canterbury beat Canterbury Sub-Unions 22-13 last weekend to gain a confidence boost heading into the championship.

NPC Fact

Three of the teams that will contest Division Three of the 2005 Air New Zealand NPC once resided in Division One. South Canterbury spent three seasons in Division One from 1978-80. Wairarapa Bush was a regular for six years from 1982-87, climbing as high as a fourth-placed finish in 1985, while King Country enjoyed five years in the top flight between 1992 and 1996. During that time, King Country scored notable away wins over Canterbury and Wellington.

Kick-off: Saturday 20 August at 2.30pm
Referee: Garratt Williamson (Wellington)
TAB odds: Mid Canterbury $1.25, Thames Valley $3.50

South Canterbury v West Coast, Timaru

South Canterbury boasts a strong recent record against West Coast as the two South Island sides square off in Timaru for round one of the championship. In winning the last four games between the two sides, South Canterbury topped 50 points three times in a row, before finishing with 48 in Greymouth last year.

West Coast has only beaten South Canterbury twice in 17 previous NPC matches, 16-12 in Timaru in 1984 and 20-15 in Greymouth five years ago. Although the history overwhelmingly favours the home side, which has won the Division Three title three times previously (in 1986, 1991 and 2001), new South Canterbury coach Kent Adams is cautious as to his team’s prospects for week one.

“We don’t know anything about them (West Coast) and we’re not a side that can afford to take any game for granted. It is going to be a journey into the unknown in some ways,” Adams says.

South Canterbury beat a Sassenachs Invitation XV two weeks ago, but lost 57-20 last week to Division Two side Marlborough. “It was a good reality check for everyone,” Adams says, “but it also showed the guys the standards they have to attain if they want to compete at a higher level.”
Adams comes to the job after acting as an assistant last year, which followed on from him guiding the Mackenzie club to their first ever victory in the South Canterbury-North Otago club championship in 2003.

South Canterbury beat just West Coast and Buller last year, alongside a draw with Wairarapa-Bush, although Adams suggests those results are largely irrelevant because he has just six of last year’s team back in harness.

“Like most smaller unions, we’ve had a fairly high turnover, but that’s the deal so we just have to get on with it,” he says. “We’ve decided to stick with home-based players this year to try and rebuild a bit of a base, because we’ve had a lot of loan players in over the years and it’s fair to say it hasn’t always worked out.”

Such is the paucity of available resources, West Coast can’t afford not to rely on a handful of loan players in key positions, and has secured those from clubs in Canterbury.

“The league is down to the semi-finals so that means that some of the guys are going to have to miss our trip to Timaru,” says coach Anthony Lawrie. “It’s not an ideal situation, but we’re not overflowing with players so we just have to make do the best that we can.”

West Coast warmed up for the NPC with a win over a New Zealand Army XV following a camp in Christchurch followed by a loss to the Nelson Bays B side. Lawrie has roped in his former Marist-Albion clubmate, former All Blacks hooker Mark Hammett, to assist in tutoring his tight forwards.

Kick-off: Saturday 20 August at 2.30pm
Referee: Matt Stanish (Auckland)
TAB odds: South Canterbury $1.06, West Coast $7