Canterbury Development Primed For All-or-nothing Challenge
Canterbury Development coach Te Hira Niha insists his team needs to put a truncated build-up behind them ahead of Saturday’s do-or-die clash with Auckland Development.
In a revamped national competition format, the winner of the showdown at Mt Smart Stadium No.2 will progress into the second-tier NZRL Championship, along with the winners of the Northern, Central and Southern regional qualifiers.
The team that takes out the Championship will face a promotion/relegation match against the bottom-placed team in the Premiership, which is made up of Canterbury Bulls, Akarana Falcons, Counties Manukau Stingrays and Wellington Orcas.
With the Massetti Cup finals series in full swing, the pool of talent Niha has to choose from is restricted, but the Northern Bulldogs mentor is satisfied with the Development side’s build-up.
“With the teams and players that are available to us at the moment, the guys have responded really well,” Niha said on Friday.
“We’ve been training for three weeks, but it’s been a bit up in the air being right in the middle of the semi-final process, as to who’s available to us and from what clubs, so it’s made it a bit tough for us.
“But the guys have responded well and we’ve managed to have a few good training sessions.”
Liwood, Hornby and Papanui are still involved in the CRL premiership race, while Celebration and Aranui are set to contest the Gore Cup grand final this weekend, which leaves only players from Riccarton, Halswell and Northern to make up the squad that will travel to Auckland.
There are several top-class players in the team, however, including Bulldogs backrower Michael Butson (pictured) and Knights halfback Angus Anderson. Butson, who will captain the Development side, is a leading contender for the Canterbury Bulls Premiership squad, while livewire Anderson made his Bulls debut last season.
Niha preferred to focus on the rewards of pulling off a victory in enemy territory, rather than the obstacles the team face to achieve it.
“(The mood) is pretty positive – and the incentive is good. The guys have all bought into that, in that if we win this game we qualify for the district competition and from there anything can happen.”
The coach is also a fan of the new format, which he believes will provide better pathways for Canterbury’s emerging talent.
“The timing of this one match probably isn’t ideal, but I think the format is a good idea,” Niha said.
“The Development side is a good stepping stone through into the Bulls, and that’s what we’re looking to do is bring some younger guys through that are looking to go and play in that next level of football.
“It’s good in that (regard) that we have this district competition for them to use as a platform to get them involved in the rep scene.”
While the rewards for victory are plentiful, a loss on Saturday would virtually end Canterbury Development’s 2016 schedule.
There is no South Island competition to fall back on, with the Development side’s only engagement – should they miss qualifying for the NZRL Championship – an opposed session next month against Canterbury 19s before their national tournament.
“Everything is hinged on this game tomorrow as to how Canterbury Development progresses,” Niha said matter-of-factly.
Providing some comfort for Niha, however, is the fact that Auckland Development has had a similarly disrupted preparation.
The cream of Auckland’s talent is tied up in the Sharman Cup, Fox Memorial and under-20s finals. Consequently, the make-up of Canterbury Development’s opponents remains something of a mystery to coach Niha, but their similar lack of availability should level up the playing field somewhat.
Niha returned to New Zealand in November after 18 years in Australia, where he was a prominent figure in the local Manly competition, coaching junior development and senior representative sides.
Taking the reins of the Canterbury Development outfit caps a memorable first year coaching in the region, coming on the back of guiding the struggling Bulldogs through a vastly improved 2016 campaign.
After collecting the 2014-15 wooden spoons and going through 2015 winless, Niha steered Northern to sixth spot with four wins and a draw this year. Although injuries curtailed a stunning start to the season, he says 2016 was the start of bigger and better things for the Kaiapoi-based club.
“I was really happy with what we achieved this year until the injuries started coming along,” he explained.
“We always knew that depth was going to be a problem. We had a good run in the first round with injury, but then we started getting a bit depleted.
“We didn’t fold any premier reserves games and in premiers we managed to field competitive sides every week and that’s the whole goal from the start of the year.
“We wanted to get out there, play some good footy and put two sides on the field that were going to give the opposition a run for their money, so we achieved that, and it’s a good platform to work off.”
The Bulldogs’ success can also be measured by the selection of five players in the Canterbury Development squad, while several others would have been strong contenders for the Development and Bulls teams had injury not intervened.
Niha’s Development side has a final training session on Friday evening, before the team flies to Auckland on Saturday morning ahead of their 12.45pm assignment against Auckland Development.
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE
Photo Credit: Fairfax NZ