CRL 2019 PREVIEW: ONLY WAY IS UP FOR PROUD KNIGHTS
The Riccarton Knights were Massetti Cup finals staples not all that long ago, but the club enters 2019 as reigning wooden spooners – a standing incoming coach Jamie Lester is eager to rectify.
Lester, who played in Riccarton’s 2002 and ’04 grand final-winning teams, returns to the club after a lengthy stint in Canada that saw him set up rugby league in the country and coach the national team, the Wolverines, for six years.
The Health and Physical Education teacher is enjoying being back in his old stomping ground.
“I’m liking the vibe at Riccarton, they’re a vibrant group and willing to learn. I’m excited for the season to come around and just get into it,” Lester enthused, albeit with a caveat for a demanding season ahead.
“However, we are struggling for a bit of depth – we’re not a massive club. I would have liked to have more players to select from, but the group of players that are there are enthusiastic.”
Lester’s experiences and remarkable achievements at grassroots level in Canada hold him in good stead to helm the Knights’ on-field rebuild.
“The challenges (in Canada) were a little bit different – I was converting a lot of union players to rugby league – but there are a lot of similarities at Riccarton,” he explained.
“We don’t have a lot of guys that have played league right through the grades growing up, so it’s about getting the basics and fundamentals right.
“Fundamentals are a big one, just going back to basics and making sure we’re building confidence. Doing the little things right and making sure that’s the cornerstone of what we’re about, then building on that once we’ve got those basics down and evolve.”
Outside of heavyweights Linwood and Hornby, Riccarton has enjoyed arguably more playing roster stability than any club.
Ageless veterans Shane Tamatea and Justin Lynch will pull on the boots yet again, with Rockcote Canterbury Bulls stars Reuben Te Amo and Jope Tagicakibau helping form the nucleus of the side.
A breakout star for the Bulls in 2017, classy centre Blake Thompson is still working his way back from an ACL injury suffered midway through last season but Lester is hopeful of having his services at some stage in 2019.
“We’ve got a good mixture of experience and young enthusiasm,” Lester said.
“I really like the look of Reuben leading in the forwards, and we’ve got others there too – Rob Nepia is a good leader also, then you’ve got young guys like Zion (Kamana-Ruka) coming through.
“Jope and Rikki Bidois have looked really sharp in the pre-season as well.”
Meanwhile, Caleb and Nepia Rewiti are joined in the premiers squad by two more brothers in 2019, potentially outstripping the tally of three Elia brothers that turned out for the Knights last year.
Lester is also looking forward to matching wits with some old adversaries and teammates.
“I played against (Linwood coach) Andrew Auimatagi in grand finals, and also played for Hornby with (Panthers coach) Jed Lawrie in the 18s so there’s some good connections there,” Lester, who had a stint as a Coaching and Development Manager with NZRL in the mid-2000s, said.
“I love coaching and that’s what I’d like to do fulltime professionally if I could somewhere down the line.”
But his primary focus is improving the Knights’ performances on the field – and maintaining the club’s tremendous reputation as a community leader off it.
“You don’t really have a team if the culture’s not right, so obviously having a good culture at a club is important.
“Some of those basics need to be there in terms of the culture on the field, that’s what we’re working on, but the culture off the field has been very good.”
The Knights confront arguably the most daunting assignment available in the Massetti Cup in Round 1, a showdown with the Keas at Linwood Park.