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East Coast at home but supporters can’t be there

RUGBY

SEEING is believing is a saying at least as old as the hallowed turf of Whakarua Park — which is to say, at least 93 years.

And tomorrow Ngati Porou East Coast rugby fans (who are among the most loyal, proud and colourful in the Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship) will, from 2.30pm, have their first sighter this season of the Sky Blues at home in a competition match.

NPEC will take on 2018 Meads Cup winners the Gold Ridge Marine Farm Thames Valley Swamp Foxes in Game 2 of round-robin play. The Valley led Wairarapa-Bush 15-10 at halftime last week before piling on 27 unanswered points to claim the new President’s Cup for play between those unions in Masterton.

Also on that day, NPEC tested 2019 Meads Cup champions North Otago to the full. Although the Old Golds prevailed 39-31 at Oamuru, the Sky Blues had been 24-17 up at the break.

Enterprise Cars Whakarua Park is the beating heart of the national game in Ruatoria. The Coast’s hard-earned gains in fitness, discipline and skill have seen vigour and confidence rise in the ranks as the Sky Blues strive for their first win in the Heartland Championship since October 27, 2012.

For the statistically minded: the Coast and the Valley have met 46 times, with four draws, NPEC having won 14 clashes since the nil-all draw at Paeroa in 1947. The Sky Blues last beat the Valley — 53-38, away from home — in 2012.

Former Otago front-row forward Peter Mirrielees gave the Coast 68 quality minutes at loosehead prop on his NPEC debut last Saturday and will start at hooker tomorrow, while captain Hone Haerewa — who won his team’s MVP (most valuable player) award at Oamuru — moves to No.8 in place of injured strongman Trent Proffit.

Former Bay of Plenty Steamer first-five Te Rangi Fraser scored a try, and potted a penalty goal and four conversions against the Southerners. If Fraser were to reproduce such kicking form week in, week out, it might not just draw the Coast closer to victory but even get them across the finish line first.

Haerewa said: “There’s a lot of excitement with this being the first Heartland home game to be held here in two years, even though our supporters won’t be able to attend because of Covid-19 restrictions.”

NPEC head coach Hosea Gear would not be human were the importance of this duel with Joe Murray and David Harrison’s Valley not to give him pause.

All three of these men balance passion with a cool head.

“Thames Valley are fit and well-organised,” Gear said.

“They have a good lineout and some dangerous players, so it’s a huge challenge for us, but we’re ready.

'Everyone’s excited for our first home game'

“Everyone’s excited for our first home game, and we know that we need to go up another level.”

Murray played 55 games for the Valley between 2008 and 2015. Harrison, the Swamp Foxes’ ninth centurion, won 102 caps in 11 seasons, put up 665 points and started in every backline spot bar halfback.

Both old salts know that a Coast team with their tails up at Whakarua Park can be irresistible — as when the Sky Blues beat the Swamp Foxes 31-26 on September 10, 2011.

Co-head coach Harrison said: “We have some exciting new backs, including our origin player, right wing Joe Cooke, of Whitianga, who now turns out for College Rifles in Auckland.

“We’re looking forward to this.”

Ten of the Valley’s 13 forwards have never been to Ruatoria, but the side have considerable depth.

Former New Zealand Sevens representative Luke Masirewa, the Swamp Foxes’ fearsome No.8, is a threat the Coast must counter. Todd Doolan, capped eight times and credited with three tries for the Sky Blues in 2016, is these days a Morrinsville Sports Club man on loan to the Valley from Waikato. He is a good player with NPC experience and will start at first five-eighth tomorrow.

Of talents on the rise, 19-year-old loosehead prop Trinity McQueen will make his first-class debut for the visitors in this juicy clash.

NPEC now have not just flair but a strong foundation and in-game direction to complement their fabled grit.

There is no grittier leader in the Heartland Championship than Hone Haerewa, but his opposing skipper, lock Connor McVerry, is similarly astute and a top lineout forward. He knows that the work-rate of both packs — not to mention their scrummaging — will be of vital importance in Game 2.

The McVerry-led Valley have left nothing to chance.

“We expect a tough battle up front from The Coast, because it’s always hard going there. We’ve got to give our backs a good platform to attack from. The forwards decide who wins the game; the backs decide by how much.”

Refereeing his third game at Ruatoria will be 29-year-old Tipene Cottrell (Hawke’s Bay), who controlled the Wellington-Northland NPC clash on August 7, 2021, and the last Heartland match held at Whakarua Park, the Sky Blues v North Otago in 2019.

His assistant referees are NPEC centenary whistle-blower Jackson Reuben-Swinton (AR1) and Matt Richards (AR2), who controlled the 2019 and 2020 East Coast men’s club finals.

NGATI POROU EAST COAST: Jody Tuhaka, Peter Mirrielees, Perrin Manuel, Gabe Te Kani, Richard Green, Tanira Tamanui-Nepia, William Bolingford, Hone Haerewa (captain), Sam Parkes, Te Rangi Fraser, Teina Potae, Te Manu Herewini, Tutere Waenga, Te Wehi Wright, Hamuera Moana. Reserves: Maia Fox, Myles Lardelli-Muir Tawa, George Waddy, Rapata Haerewa, Tawhao Stewart, Tipene Meihana, Pera Bishop, Mike Chambers-Raroa, Pamona Samupo.

THAMES VALLEY: Trinity McQueen, Cody Muir, Josh Kaho, Ryan Leopold, Connor McVerry (c), Cameron Dromgool (vc), Matt McCahon, Luke Masirewa, Leroy Neels, Todd Doolan, Sione Vakapuna Etoni, Sam McCahon, Harry Lafituanai, Joe Cooke, Telly Hemopo. Reserves: Te Huia Kutia, Tyler Relph, Kobi Abrahamson, Jack Kingsford, Tiaontin Raoren, Tevita Halafihi, Will Newbold.