RUGBY - SIONE Ngatu makes his 100th appearance for Poverty Bay and Toa Halafihi his first against West Coast at Rugby Park at 2.30pm tomorrow.
Ngatu is an obvious selection for a Heartland Championship game the Bay need to win to revive their Meads Cup top four hopes but coach Grainger Heikell sprung a surprise in naming Gisborne Boys’ High first 15 player Halafihi at openside flanker.
“Toa’s not huge but he tackles low and knocks people over, he carries the ball well, he’s fit, skilful and has trained well with us the past few weeks,” Heikell said. “The enthusiasm of his youth might just be what we need this weekend.
“This is a big game for the team and Sione, and the boys would love nothing better than to celebrate it with a win.”
Boys’ High coach Tom Cairns has no doubts Halafihi will step up.
“He’ll give speed to the breakdown and if he wins that battle it will give the Bay a fighting chance,” Cairns said. “He plays at a 100 miles an hour and will bring high energy to the side. He knows one only way . . . forward.”
Cairns said the number of youngsters in the ITM cup showed age was not a factor in stepping up to senior level.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
Heikell has also signed halfback Alan Ross from Hawke’s Bay and he will make his Bay debut off the bench tomorrow.
“We’re thin on the ground for halfbacks. Alan gives us cover and competition for places.”
Jason Tuapawa replaces Josese Bolabasaga at lock as Heikell looks for his side look to bounce back from two forgettable weekends.
After a good first-up win against Horowhenua-Kapiti the Bay suffered heavy losses to competition joint leaders Wairarapa Bush and Wanganui.
It’s still early days but another loss would leave the Bay with a mountain to climb and Heikell is wary of a West Coast side who have made a solid start to the championship under the guidance of head coach and former All Black and Crusaders midfielder Nathan Mauger.
“He’s bound to have brought a lot of good things from his playing background and probably recruited well,” Heikell said.
“West Coast had a good win (over King Country 27-21) and two narrow losses (23-16 to Ngati Porou East Coast and Wairarapa Bush 12-8). We expect them to be a physical side but maybe play with a bit more flair with Mauger in charge.”
Tongan-born Ngatu, who became a New Zealand citizen on Wednesday, said he did not want his 100th game to be the focus of attention ahead of the game.
“I’ve been lucky to play rugby and I just enjoy playing with the Poverty Bay team,” said Ngatu, who arrived here in 2003 along with three other Tonga players — Aleki Kolo, Mosese Paunga and Petelo Pilu — who are no longer here.
“I went back to Tonga at the end of the 2003 season but came back the following year after meeting Anita, who is now my wife, and we have two lovely girls — Serenity and Lavinia.”
A two-time nominee for Heartland division player of the year, Ngatu, who turns 31 on September 25, said he had never thought of leaving Gisborne.
“Ngatapa and Poverty Bay gave me the chance to play here and I want to stay loyal to them. I have always been well treated by the Poverty Bay coaches and learned something from them all, but the important thing is this weekend and getting a win.”
West Coast are led by no-nonense blindside flanker Alan Monk (26), whose brother Michael (23) was one of the 29 victims of the Pike River coal mine disaster.
Monk, No.8 Rowan O’Gorman, lock Brad Houston and first five Corey Deans stood out in their loss to East Coast.
POVERTY BAY: Simon Versteeg, Henry Yortt, Jone Lesi, Murray Hewson, Jason Tuapawa, Sione Ngatu, Toa Halafihi, Andrew Gardner, Richard Brown, Scott Leighton (c), Sione Tupa, Nick Wilson, Paul Tikomainaivalu, David Philander, Kelvin Smith.
Reserves: Russell Burns, Campbell Chrisp, Josese Bolabasaga, Tevita Maka, Alan Ross, Moss Doran, Pamona Samupo.