New Skipper Baxendale Primed For Bulls’ Campaign
Canterbury Bulls veteran James Baxendale has barely had time to catch his breath from Hornby’s grand final loss to Linwood before heading straight into another representative campaign.
But the added honour of taking over as his province’s skipper has provided the 30-year-old with extra drive for the 2016 NZRL National Premiership.
Baxendale debuted for Canterbury with an appearance in 2006, aged 20, and has been a Bulls regular since 2009. Being installed as new coach Andrew Auimatagi’s team leader represents another milestone for the goalkicking back-rower.
“It’s a massive highlight for myself, I’ve been in the team for four or five years now but Andrew asked me to be captain this year and I had no hesitation taking it,” Baxendale says.
The taste of grand final defeat was a rare sensation for the ultra-consistent workhorse. After playing in the Panthers’ loss to the Keas in the 2005 decider, Baxendale had won the last five CRL grand finals he’d competed in, with the Panthers saluting in 2006, ’09-10 and ’12-13.
He is circumspect about last Sunday’s convincing 29-10 loss to a dominant Linwood outfit after Hornby’s excellent season under a new mentor.
“2013 was the last time we were (in a grand final) and last year was really disappointing, we were building nicely and we bundled out in the semis,” he says.
“But we had a good year this year under Jed Lawrie, but it leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth coming second.
“It was really disappointing, but there’s no shame in saying we got beaten by a better team and that’s what happened.”
The Bulls squad is predominantly made up of Panthers and Keas stars, and Baxendale maintains there will be no problems gelling in the red and black after the teams’ hammer-and-tongs showdown just days earlier.
“There’s a lot of respect between the two clubs, there always has been.
“There’s no issue there – as long as we get the best team on the field and we come together as quickly as possible, that’s the main objective in this Canterbury Bulls campaign.
“There’s a lot of familiar faces who played last year, and we’ve got a few new boys in the team, so we’re really looking forward to see how they get on.”
Baxendale also says having his club captain, former New Zealand Warriors forward Corey Lawrie, won’t present any power-struggle problems in the Bulls side.
“I already sort of (bark out the orders to him) at Hornby anyway,” he jokes.
“It’s all good, because Corey’s got a lot of experience. The things he says on the field, you can’t buy that so he’ll be real valuable to the team.”
And Baxendale is relishing the chance to work together with the man who masterminded his grand final demise, Keas coach Auimatagi.
“I used to go to school with Andrew, so I’ve known him for a long time and I’ve held him in great respect for a long, long time. I’m really excited to play under him this year.”
Besides a long-standing reputation as one of the region’s most valuable forwards – including winning the 2010 CRL player of the year award and earning selection in last year’s New Zealand Residents merit team – Baxendale certainly boasts the right pedigree to captain Canterbury.
His father, West Coast legend Ray, played the last of his 16 Tests for the Kiwis from Christchurch club Marist-Western in 1981, before embarking on a professional stint with English side Wakefield Trinity.
Like James, Ray Baxendale was a back-rower – debuting for his country during the 1975 World Championship series against an Australian pack boasting all-time greats Ron Coote and Terry Randall – before finishing his career in the front-row.
Baxendale junior is creating his own representative legacy, with another chapter beginning on Sunday when he leads the Bulls out onto Mt Smart Stadium to take on defending champs the Counties Manukau Stingrays in a replay of last year’s final.
Despite Canterbury’s emphatic loss in last year’s decider, Baxendale says retribution isn’t on his or the Bulls’ minds.
“It’s a new campaign, new coaches, new team.
“They’ve probably got a whole new set-up as well. I wouldn’t call it revenge, it would just be good to get it off to a good start.”
The revamped format – with only four teams in the Premiership competition – means any slip-up could be crucial to the Bulls’ chances of reaching the October 1 final in Auckland.
“It’s a pretty short preparation, so pretty much this week’s our first full week of training,” the skipper says.
“It is really important that we get the ball rolling, but we just have to win at least two of the three.
“Obviously we want to win this week, but we’ve got two home games (against Wellington Orcas and Akarana Falcons) to come so I think we’ll be alright.”
Baxendale is confident fierce competition for spots in the Bulls’ game-day squad puts the team in good stead for a tilt at regaining the title Canterbury won under Darrell Coad in 2014.
“We can only travel (to Auckland) with the 17, so there’s going to be eight guys miss out and whoever gets the opportunity are going to have to play really well because the jersey’s not a given.
“If the young boys get an opportunity, I’m really excited to see how they go.”
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE