January and February are traditionally reserved for Nines tournaments and pre-season club training in Canterbury Rugby League circles.

But Saturday’s historic Ngā Puna Wai opener has meant the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls squad spent the early part of 2019 sweating it out in preparation for a showdown with the Warriors’ InTrust Super Premiership team – on top of their usual commitments.

Gearing up for a high-quality fixture at this stage of the season shapes as a significant adjustment for the Rockcote Bulls, who usually do not come together for representative matches until September.

“That’s been the big challenge – guys not being used to that intensive workload with club training going on as well,” Rockcote Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi says.

“But I think we’ve managed to get through it as best we can. We’ve been training since the first week of January, one to two sessions a week. We’re mindful of their workload but hopefully the boys can get out there and produce their best this Saturday.

“The boys have been training well. We’ve brought a few guys into the squad that weren’t involved in (last year’s) campaign. Overall we’re happy with the combinations and how the guys have been working together.”

Despite the unavailability of a handful of last season’s regulars, the Rockcote Bulls will field a strong and experienced line-up featuring 2018 standouts Brad Campbell, James Baxendale, Rulon Nutira, Ben Ilalio, Den Grace and Alex Todd. Oustanding back-row prospect Caius Fa’atili is also set for his first taste of senior rep footy.

But there’s plenty of interest around a pair of Hornby Panthers inclusions who are returning to the representative arena.

A string of withdrawals in the hooker position has seen the 39-year-old Corey Lawrie answer Canterbury’s call. He will share the dummy-half duties with clubmate Tyrone Arona.

Meanwhile, classy playmaker Tevin Arona is back in Canterbury after two seasons in Auckland and will form an exciting halves pairing with 2018 rookie Campbell.

Tevin Arona was part of the Warriors’ ISP squad in 2017-18, while Lawrie played four NRL games for the Warriors in 2007.

“Corey is always going to put his hand up to help out with the red-and-black, so he adds a lot of experience,” Auimatagi enthuses.

“Tevin’s been awesome, his professionalism, he’s in good nick at the moment and I’m sure he’ll be looking for a big game on Saturday. He knows a few of the (Warriors) players so it helps to tip us up a bit with a few guys.”

Tevin Arona playing for the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls in the 2015 NZRL National Premiership

New Zealand’s 2008 World Cup-winning captain Nathan Cayless brings a youthful squad to the South Island for the first assignment of his stint as the Warriors’ InTrust Super Premiership coach.

Many of his likely 2019 regulars are in Geelong for the Warriors’ NRL trial against the Storm, but there will be a plethora of promising tyros on display. Of particular note is the homecoming of Canterbury juniors Patrick Elia and Tahi Baggaley for their first hit-out with the ISP squad.

Preston Riki, who won the Sonny Fai Medal as the Warriors’ Jersey Flegg Player of the Year, is another player to keep an eye on.

“There’s some exciting young talent and a lot of ability there,” Auimatagi says.

“They’re real athletes and they will be looking to make a statement. It’ll be their first outing in the Warriors jersey this year, so it’s an exciting time for them.”

But the Bulls-Warriors clash – which will be preceded by a women’s trial game requested by the Warriors’ NRLW coaching staff – is almost secondary to the occasion: rugby league’s first steps at Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub, the new home of the code in Canterbury.

The significance is not lost on Auimatagi and his players.

“It’s awesome that we’re playing at our new home base and I’m sure it will help take our game to another level down here.

“We’re hoping we’ll get a big turnout for the opening and the boys are looking forward to it. Ngā Puna Wai is going to be awesome for the CRL community for many years to come.

“Hopefully the crowds turn up and we can put on a good show.”


11:45am – Women’s Trial Match

1:30pm – Rockcote Canterbury Bulls v Warriors InTrust Super Premiership Team

Tickets $10 – Under 5s free


ROCKCOTE CANTERBURY BULLS: 1 Dene Grace, 2 Vinnie Paul, 3 Erwin Sauni, 4 Will Tafua, 5 Ben Ilalio, 6 Brad Campbell, 7 Tevin Arona, 8 Alex Todd, 9 Tyrone Arona 10 Rulon Nutira, 11 Michael Butson, 12 Matthew Sauni, 13 James Baxendale (c). Interchange: 14 Corey Lawrie, 15 Thoren Fidow-Kele, 16 Caleb Tohovaka, 17 Paul Sauni, 18 Jope Tagicakibau, 19 Toi Sepuloni, 20 Caius Fa’atili


Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke – CMG Sports

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