Promising Signs For Bulls In First-up Loss
Canterbury Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi is taking plenty of positives out of his side’s first outing of the 2016 NZRL National Premiership, despite the 36-22 loss to Counties Manukau Stingrays representing a missed opportunity to take a big step towards qualifying for the final of the revamped competition.
The Bulls led 16-12 early in the second half of Sunday’s clash at Mt Smart Stadium, but were ultimately overrun by the polished defending champs in a repeat of last year’s decider at the same venue.
“In the end it’s pretty disappointing, considering we had them on the ropes, we felt. But we just couldn’t finish the job,” Auimatagi says.
“We definitely built enough pressure to get the win, but it wasn’t to be.”
The red-and-blacks were on the back foot early, falling behind 12-0 midway through the first half before clawing back to level via tries to Erwin Sauni and Tevin Arona. The fight-back was one of the most pleasing aspects of the performance for Auimatagi.
“(I was) really impressed by the way the boys stuck to the plan and never gave up. Right across the 80 minutes you could see the guys working hard for each other,” he says, before revealing there will be a few tweaks ahead of this Sunday’s crucial home assignment against the Wellington Orcas.
“We’re just going to revisit our defence and reinforce a few areas there we want to improve on, and also when we get down into good ball, being a bit more patient.
“We had enough opportunities to score some points but we didn’t capitalise.”
The Bulls struggled to contain the Stingrays’ contingent of big forwards in the middle third, while the home side’s opening two tries were relatively soft efforts coming courtesy of determined runs by their front-rowers.
“Those two tries from short range were pretty disappointing, considering we’ve done a bit of work around our defence.
“I think it was more a case of the guys getting too far ahead of themselves, expecting the ball to be shifted.
“They’ve just got to remember the most dangerous person is the guy in front of them with the ball, and we’ll look to improve in that area.”
Canterbury was dealt a significant blow in the lead-up, with recently-appointed skipper James Baxendale ruled out by injury on Thursday night. Auimatagi rates the back-row veteran only a 40 percent chance of returning, but says his influence would continue to be key component of the Bulls’ campaign.
“It was pretty disappointing for James, he was really looking forward to his first game as captain so I really felt for him,” Auimatagi says.
“But he took it on the chin and was a great leader for us off the field and it was awesome to take him up (to Auckland) with us to be part of it.”
Baxendale’s withdrawal provided an opportunity for Kyle Leka to captain the Bulls, and the rugged Celebration Lions prop showed the way superbly against the imposing Stingrays pack.
“Kyle was great for us,” Auimatagi enthuses.
“He’s an awesome leader, a man of action and he really took on the challenge and led us up the middle along with Alex Todd.
“I thought our bench (forwards) were great as well, the impact they provided.”
Second-rower Michael Butson also produced a non-stop effort, but the standout individual performers were not restricted to the engine-room, with new halves combination Arona and Toi Sepuloni starring.
Livewire Hornby No.7 Arona consistently probed Counties Manukau’s defensive line, and bagged a 65-metre intercept try during the first half. Burly Linwood five-eighth Sepuloni – who boasts the uncanny ability to slow the game down to his pace, reminiscent of Wally Lewis and Jason Smith – regularly opened up space for his outside men and hemmed in the Stingrays with a deft short kicking game.
“That was another pleasing point. Their kicking game in particular, and their ability to steer the team around the field was really good to see and they’ll only get better as a combination.”
There were none better than mercurial brothers and centre partners, Erwin and Matt Sauni, who each scored a try and were heavily involved throughout.
“They were pretty outstanding,” Auimatagi says of the Keas three-quarters.
“Matt was voted our players’ player, and I’m guessing Erwin was pretty close. Those guys did a great job for us, not only when we were getting close to the line, but doing some hard runs as well to get us on the front foot.”
The benefits of the Bulls’ season opener extend far beyond building combinations on the paddock. The trip to Auckland – including an overnight stay – helped create unity and team spirit in a new-look squad according to Auimatagi, who took over as coach this season.
“That was one of the things we’ve discussed as a staff, how great a weekend it was to get the boys up there on a Saturday and just spend some time together.
“We went out for dinner, watched some footy together and it was a massive boost for us as a squad to get to know each other. I think you definitely saw the dividends of that on the field.”
Aside from Baxendale, Panthers winger Dene Grace is also in doubt for this weekend’s encounter – but the visiting Orcas undoubtedly have a few more concerns after being on the wrong end of a 60-26 hammering from the Akarana Falcons.
“First hit-out, you don’t want to take too much out of that,” Auimatagi, who has seen a replay of Wellington’s heavy loss, says cautiously.
“They definitely turned up and were competing there for patches but Akarana were too strong for them. There’s some areas we want to target, and hopefully if we’re on our game we can get a good result.”
It’s a must-win game for the Bulls if they hope to qualify for the final of the abbreviated four-team competition, and while they will start as heavy favourites, 80-minute concentration is vital with for-and-against potentially crucial in determining who goes through to the October 1 decider.
“Dropping that first game, the pressure’s on, but I think that’s something we’re really going to thrive on.
“We made a point of it going up against the reigning champs, you’ve got to accept the challenge and embrace it. I think the boys definitely answered in that regard and this is another chance to stamp our mark on the competition.”
This weekend’s assignment will also be a rare opportunity to play on the hallowed Addington turf of AMI Stadium for some of the younger members of the Canterbury team, with the last two CRL grand finals and the Bulls’ 2015 home games the only rugby league played at the venue in recent years.
“The boys are really looking forward to coming home,” Auimatagi says, imploring Bulls fans to come out in force for the 4pm match-up.
“It’s been something the guys have really relished, coming back to the home of rugby league and getting full crowd support behind us.”
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE