RUGBY - HEAD coach Grainger Heikell and his co-selectors hope to name the 24-man Heartland squad to tour Samoa next month after Saturday’s championship semifinals.
“Ideally we would like to have waited until the following week when we could see players under the pressure of finals rugby,” said Heikell, whose Poverty Bay team are away to Buller in the Lochore Cup (fifth-to-eighth) semis on Saturday.
“But we’re playing New Zealand Marist on November 3, followed by the Samoan club champions at Apia on November 6 and then Samoa A team on November 10.
“It’s a big ask — three tough games in seven days — but it’s an honour to be coaching a national representative team,” said Heikell, who will be assisted by King Country coach Kurt McQuilkin.
Those not eligible for the touring squad are international, overseas, province of origin and loan players.
Heartland coaches have been asked to nominate players they think are in with “a genuine chance” of being selected.
“The Heartland team will be picked on ability, not sentiment,” said Heikell. “It will be a team we think are capable of winning three tough games.”
Despite the Coast making the Meads Cup top-four final last season, player-coach Ngarimu Simpkins was their lone representative in the Heartland 15.
After finishing top of the Heartland Championship points table to book a second consecutive semifinal against North Otago in Ruatoria on Saturday, Simpkins and captain Rua Tipoki are hoping that translates to a few more Coast players in this year’s team.
“Last year Ngaz had the playing experience credibility but a lot of the boys have stuck their hands up this season with consistent performances,” said Tipoki, who is unavailable for selection.
“Our pack has dominated almost every team they’ve played and none of the guys eligible would look out of place in the Heartland team. Our backs have been getting better with every game, not just scoring tries but defending as well.”
Simpkins preferred not to single out individuals.
“But if the Heartland team is picked off previous years — the top team getting a bulk of their players in — we should have a few of the boys make it.”
Coast forwards eligible include Simpkins (hooker), Tripoli Poi (prop), Kerehama Blackman (lock), Brent Ingram (openside) Tanetoa Parata (blindside) and Morgan Wirepa junior (No.8).
Poi, Ingram and Wirepa have been outstanding this season.
While Simpkins and Ziggy Fisihoi have been getting the accolades, Poi has earned the respect of his coach.
“Tighthead prop is one of the hardest positions on the paddock,” said Simpkins. “I’ve played alongside some good tighthead props in my career and Tripoli is right up there.”
Coast backs in contention are Charlie Harrison (halfback), TK Moeke (winger), Pomare Samupo (centre) and Verdon Bartlett (fullback). Wingers Tom Teaki and Mike King are eligible but limited game time this season could count against them.
Harrison was under pressure from young Sam Parkes at the start of the season but the competition has brought the best out of the former Coast captain.
“Charlie’s been the glue that links the forwards and backs,” Tipoki said. “You can see from the way he trains and plays he is not going to give up his jersey without a fight. He has been a big part of why we are where we are.”
Poverty Bay had one player — blindside flanker Sione Ngatu — in the 2011 Heartland squad. Performances so far this season suggest he has a good chance of retaining his place. Lock Murray Hewson and fullback Kelvin Smith have also put their hands up.