ROCKCOTE BULLS’ EYES ON THE PRIZE IN HISTORIC NGĀ PUNA WAI CLASH
The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls are gearing up for a historic match at Ngā Puna Wai, hosting Counties Manukau Stingrays in their last 2019 NZRL National Premiership round-robin fixture (1pm Sunday kick-off). But coach Andrew Auimatagi could be forgiven for having a creeping sense of déjà vu ahead of the crunch encounter, which will decide who progresses to next weekend’s final.
The Rockcote Bulls agonisingly missed out on the Premiership decider on for-and-against in each of their 2016-18 campaigns. Unbeaten so far in 2019, another victory on Sunday would guarantee Canterbury a spot in the final. But a loss to the Stingrays – who will likely need to win to have any chance of qualifying – will have the Bulls scrambling for their calculators as points differential again comes into play.
Nevertheless, the Bulls are fizzing for their maiden outing on Ngā Puna Wai’s Rugby League 1 ground – not least because it means they won’t have to worry about flying to and from the North Island on game-day, as they had to in the first two rounds.
“The boys are really excited. It’s had a really good feel since we started all our prep at the venue and it’s starting to feel like home,” Auimatagi said.
“The boys will be up for it. It’s a pleasant change (from playing away) and I’m hoping that factors into our performance as well.”
The Rockcote Bulls opened the National Premiership with a rousing 28-18 come-from behind victory over defending champs Akarana Falcons in Auckland, before putting the cleaners through Waikato in Hamilton 46-6 in Round 2.
But the Falcons’ 30-18 win over the Stingrays last weekend meant the Bulls couldn’t quite celebrate their passage through to the final just yet.
Ladder-leading Canterbury’s for-and-against of plus-50 is superior to Counties (+34) and Akarana (+2). But defeat tomorrow by more than eight points would see the Stingrays leapfrog them on the table and potentially leave them at the mercy of the Falcons, who play Waikato on Saturday. For instance, if the Bulls went down to the Stingrays by 10 points, the Falcons could squeeze into the final by beating Waikato by a 40-point margin – as the Bulls did last week.
Leaving plenty of points out on FMG Stadium last weekend courtesy of slotting just three conversions from 10 attempts may prove crucial, but Auimatagi is not focusing on the near misses of recent years.
Linwood’s four-time premiership-winning coach would prefer his team takes mathematics out of the picture with another win.
“It’s a similar situation in terms of the table, but the focus for us needs to be on the boys,” Auimatagi says.
“We’ve got a different team to the previous years and the way they’ve built their combinations is really positive. We’re just looking forward to Sunday and getting out there.
“They’ve really impressed me – they’re a different team and play a bit of a different style given the people we’ve got. It’s hard to compare because they’ve all been good teams the past few years, but it’s a bit of a different feel.
“I think the move to Ngā Puna Wai has been a part of that.”
Canterbury’s attacking flair and penchant for posting long-range tries has been a key feature of their 2019 campaign. The game-breaking ability of teenage back-row sensation Caius Fa’atili, a brilliant hat-trick to five-eighth and co-captain Tevin Arona, and a barnstorming display from big winger Ben Ilalio filled the highlight reels in the win over the Falcons.
Arona and Hornby halves partner Brad Campbell pulled the strings superbly against Waikato, while rookie fullback Jordan Coleman and centre Vinnie Paul picked up doubles. The switch of outside-backs Danny Latu and Matt Sauni to the back-row has proved a master-stroke.
“Having Tevin there allows for a different style of attack and his combination with Brad, having two good running halves, they give us more options,” Auimatagi explained.
“I’ve been really impressed with the young guys, they’ve taken their opportunity and shown they’re more than up for the challenge. I’m stoked for them.”
Coleman is unavailable this weekend due to his selection in the NZ Residents 18s team to play France Under-19s next Thursday, but Panthers teammate Fa’atili is a chance of being a late inclusion for the Bulls after missing the Hamilton trip with a knee complaint.
The mercurial Ilalio has been named at fullback, with Keas teammate Rangi Thompson in line for a Canterbury debut on the wing. Matt Sauni is out this week, but brother Erwin returns to the Bulls’ line-up in the centres.
Auimatagi is wary of the danger the Stingrays present, despite their disappointing derby performance against the Falcons.
“They’re fighting for a grand final spot as well so they’ll be desperate, looking to come down to our home patch and upset the parade, I guess,” he said.
“We’ve got to be ready for that onslaught. They’re a power-based team with some really good middle forwards, so we’re expecting them to play to their strengths.
“They also have a couple of experienced halves with a good kicking game. They are a side with a lot of threats – we’ve just got to make sure we’re on our game.”
NZRL NATIONAL PREMIERSHIP – ROUND 3
1pm, Sunday, September 29 – Rockcote Canterbury Bulls v Counties Manukau Stingrays @ Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub, Christchurch