Bulls Coach Confident In New-look Spine
A quick scan over the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls’ 2016 team list reveals the extent of the changing of the guard that has been forced upon coach Andrew Auimatagi and his provincial squad this year.
Among the players that moved elsewhere in 2017 are representative staples Tevin Arona, Phil Nati, Matthew Sauni, Nathan Saumalu, Chris Bamford and Michael Butson, while cast-iron veteran Corey Lawrie was unavailable for Bulls selection.
Captain James Baxendale will also miss the Bulls’ first NZRL National Premiership assignment this Sunday against Counties Manukau Stingrays as he makes his way home from a European holiday that also ruled him out of Hornby’s side for the postponed CRL grand final.
But Auimatagi is confident he has the requisite nucleus of experience and ability in his exciting, new-look line-up.
“There’s a few of the guys that have been building in terms of their leadership skills and qualities over the last few years,” Auimatagi said.
“Not too much needs to be said about it, we’ve got a leadership group, and I meet with them weekly. Those guys know they’ve got to deliver their best consistently and the other will follow.
“It’s a good mix and a good vibe.”
Arguably the most pronounced difference between this year’s Rockcote Bulls campaign and last will be in the key playmaking positions. Arona and Toi Sepuloni paired up in the halves in 2016, while Lawrie and Alani Kakoi formed a potent dummy-half rotation.
This weekend’s National Premiership opener at AMI Stadium will see veteran halves Izic Placid and Tama Walker return to the representative stage in the No.6 and 7 respectively, while Panthers fullback Dene Grace is the surprise pick to start at hooker and Northern Bulldogs newcomer Chase Williams provides dummy-half cover off the bench.
“Having Izic and Tama, they’ve both played at that level before, and they know what’s required,” Auimatagi said.
“They’ve been in great form for their clubs, I’m really excited to see those two combine.
“They’re two players with a lot of experience and skill so they’ll steer the boys around well. They’ve got great kicking games as well.”
Papanui Tigers linchpin Placid last played for the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls in 2015, but Celebration Lions’ Walker is back in the fold after a far lengthier absence.
“I actually played with him (for the Bulls) back in ’08, ’09,” Auimatagi explained.
“He’s been a really strong player for some time on the club scene and it’s great to see him have another opportunity at Bulls level.”
Anyone who witnessed Walker’s long-range field goal to snatch a last-minute victory for the Lions over the Panthers during the Massetti Cup this year can attest to his match-winning attributes.
But the retrenchment of Grace – better known as a game-breaking fullback at club level and a winger for the Bulls – to hooker shapes as the most intriguing facet of the Bulls’ 2017 opener from an individual standpoint.
How Auimatagi rotates Grace and Williams, particularly with a heavy defensive workload anticipated up against a huge Stingrays pack, will be important to the outcome.
“Chase has played some Canterbury Development stuff before, so we know what we’re getting out of him, and a guy like Dene Grace is quite versatile,” Auimatagi enthused.
“Erwin (Sauni) will start at fullback, so that allows Dene to move into that hooking role and having both of those guys on the field at the same time will be pretty good for us.”
One thing Auimatagi is not short of is spine options. Erwin Sauni has proven himself as one of the most dangerous centres on the New Zealand domestic scene if he believes Grace will better serve his Bulls side at fullback at some stage during the campaign.
Meanwhile, stalwart Halswell Hornets five-eighth Sean Scott was one of the late additions to the squad after the East v West and Bulls v Barbarians trial, and Blake Thompson – selected at centre this Sunday – featured in the halves for Riccarton Knights this year.
ROCKCOTE CANTERBURY BULLS LINE-UP vs COUNTIES MANUKAU STINGRAYS – 2PM, SUNDAY, SEPTBEMER 17 @ AMI STADIUM
1 Erwin Sauni
2 Vinnie Paul
3 Tauvale Tauvale
4 Blake Thompson
5 Josh Aileone
6 Izic Placid
7 Tama Walker
8 Alex Todd (c)
9 Dene Grace
10 Jiordan Fidow-Kele
11 Paul Sauni
12 Jesse Rogers
13 Reuben Te Amo
14 Chase Williams
15 Willie Davis
16 Damien Papuni
17 Texas Toleafoa
2017 Rockcote Canterbury Bulls squad: Alex Todd, Erwin Sauni, Jiordan Fidow-Kele, Paul Sauni, Joseph Mika (Linwood Keas), James Baxendale, Jesse Rogers, Tauvale Tauvale, Dene Grace, Tyrone Arona, Damien Papuni (Hornby Panthers), Izic Placid, Joshua Aileone, Jules Webley (Papanui Tigers), Blake Thompson, Reuben Te Amo (Riccarton Knights), Texas Toleafoa, Willie Davis, Ben Ilalio, Sean Scott (Halswell Hornets), Chase Williams, (Northern Bulldogs), Vinnie Paul (Aranui Eagles), Tama Walker (Celebration Lions).
Photo Credit: Kirk Hargreaves