RUGBY - THE signing of former All Blacks back Caleb Ralph for Ngati Porou East Coast was not a publicity stunt, says player-coach Ngarimu Simpkins.
Getting Ralph to put pen to paper for this season’s Heartland Championship was a coup for Simpkins and assistant coach Rua Tipoki.
But six weeks into the competition Ralph has yet to make his debut for the Coast, and barring a major injury toll in the next few weeks is unlikely to play for them this season.
“Caleb is still our player and if we were to suddenly lose a number of our backs we can call him in,” Simpkins said.
“Caleb is a good mate of Rua (Tipoki, Coast captain and assistant coach) and when he signed it was always his intention to wear the Sky Blue jersey.
“Early in the season Caleb had to go back to Australia to tie up a few loose ends and that meant he was unavailable.
“Since then the side has been improving with every game and we all agree — me, Rua and Caleb — it wouldn’t be fair to bring him in at this stage of the season.
“The guys who have been in all season have worked hard and deserve their crack at making the top-four playoffs.”
Tipoki said Ralph was following up on a potential career path as a conditioning and fitness trainer in Australia.
“In the post-pro rugby stage of his life, I totally understand his need to see if this opportunity is something which could secure him a career after rugby,” said Tipoki.
“Looking at the make-up of our team, our three loan players are all playing so well any one of them could be in the running for player of the season, as well as a couple of the local players.
“Ziggy Fisihoi (prop), Everard Reid (lock) and John Semple (first five-cum fullback) are pretty much indispensable.
“Add to that that we’re past halfway in the season and our outside backs are on fire, and it’s easy to see that we can’t replace any of those loan players with Caleb.
“He totally agrees with us and that’s the measure of the man. He was never in it for the glory. He’s had all that and it’s been well deserved. Caleb was coming here to be one of the boys, pass on his wealth of experience and enjoy playing Heartland rugby.
“OK, it hasn’t worked out that way but as Nga said, Caleb is still signed and if we needed him and it’s possible for him to play I have no doubt he would.”
Tipoki may be the general on the paddock but the skipper was full of praise for his backline colleagues.
“Whai (Whaimotu Craft-Chemis) and TK (Moeke) have to be among the best wingers in the competition. They’re really coming into their own at the business end of the season.
“Verdon Bartlett (fullback-cum winger), whose papa died before Saturday’s game, causing him to miss the game, has been in tremendous form all season.
“All three have covered well and saved certain opposition tries which is a great indicator of an attitude which says ‘I’m willing to do that bit extra for my team.
“That’s the type of team spirit we’re going to need over the next few weeks.”
The Coast are back at Whakarua Park, Ruatoria, on Saturday and should beat bottom-of-the-table King Country.
“That’s what everybody else will be saying . . . except King Country,” Simpkins said. “This is their cup final and we have to guard against being overconfident. And the way the points are, it’s a game we probably need to pick up five points from.
“Our first focus has to be winning and then if we’re in a position to go for the bonus point, we’ll go hard out.”
If Tipoki is the brains in the backline, Simpkins is a key man in the forwards.
His lineout throwing is top drawer and he leads by example, claiming kick-offs and restarts and tackling ferociously.
Simpkins anchors the front row of Tripoli Poi and Fisihoi who have laid the platform for a pack getting better with every game.