ROCKCOTE BULLS GEAR UP FOR BUMPER SCHEDULE
Canterbury Rugby League’s move to its new home at Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub in 2019 has coincided with the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls’ most jam-packed schedule in years.
The season kicked off in February with a historic clash against the Warriors’ Canterbury Cup team in the official Ngā Puna Wai opener – a rare pre-season fixture for the Rockcote Bulls. After their NZRL National Premiership commitments, which begin tomorrow against Akarana Falcons in Auckland, the Rockcote Bulls host NSW Country and Toa Samoa at Ngā Puna Wai in a massive coup for rugby league in the region.
The main rugby league fields at Ngā Puna Wai passed their first major test on Grand Final Day last month, with four CRL deciders played on the same day. The next milestone for the first-class venue is the Rockcote Bulls’ last Premiership round-robin assignment against Counties Manukau Stingrays on September 29.
Canterbury coach Andrew Auimatagi, fresh from guiding Linwood Keas to a fourth straight CRL men’s premiership grand final triumph, says the long-awaited shift to Ngā Puna Wai has given the Rockcote Bulls a spring in their step.
“I’ve been really impressed by the boys, they’ve come together really well and it’s good to be at Nga Puna Wai – it’s got that semi-professional feel about it all with our own venue,” Auimatagi enthuses.
“We’re based out there now and just having the changing rooms, the great turf to train on and a team room, it’s pretty cool.”
But before the Rockcote Bulls can show off their new base to visiting teams, Auimatagi has his charges focused on back-to-back North Island road trips, with Saturday’s showdown against the Falcons followed by an encounter with Waikato in Hamilton.
Three straight campaigns of rolling one of the Auckland big guns, only to agonisingly miss the NZRL National Premiership final on for-and-against, has the Rockcote Bulls primed to qualify for their first decider since 2015.
“That’s the expectation, to go one further this year,” Auimatagi confirms.
“It’s been really disappointing the last few seasons missing out by points differential. We want to take all of that out of the equation and just win these games – that’s the approach we’re going in with.”
But Akarana provides a daunting litmus test for Canterbury first up. The Falcons racked up a decisive 34-14 win in the last Rockcote Bulls match at Rugby League Park in 2018, before powering to a 51-20 victory over the Stingrays in the final.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” Auimatagi says.
“We’ve had two weeks of field sessions and two weeks prior to that, getting the boys together for some team stuff.
“It’s great to test ourselves against the benchmark of the past few years straight off the bat. Our boys can’t wait.”
The Rockcote Bulls’ 2019 squad boasts an exciting blend of youth and experience. The seasoned core of Alex Todd, James Baxendale, Rulon Nutira, Matt Sauni, Vinnie Paul, Ben Ilalio, Jiordan Fidow-Kele, Roger Tafua and Alani Kakoi are supported by the likes of outstanding 2018 discovery Brad Campbell, newcomers Reagan Stanton, Jordan Coleman and Caius Fa’atili, and returning ‘young veterans’ Tevin Arona and Michael Butson.
Meanwhile, the unavailability of selected players Cyrus Timo-Latu and Saga Mati has been tempered by the popular call-up of long-serving Riccarton hooker Justin Lynch and Canadian international Brad Austin.
Auimatagi has installed Linwood workhorse Todd and Hornby linchpin Arona as his co-captains for the campaign ahead.
“Tevin’s really relishing that leadership role, so it’s good to see him stepping up. (Arona and Butson) were both really impressive at the start of the year in the Warriors fixture, so it’s great to have them both onboard again.”
Meanwhile, Panthers sensation Fa’atili is certain to attract plenty of attention – for his ability to mix it with the big boys at just 17 years of age and for his freakish array of game-breaking skills. The back-row powerhouse’s memorable long-range tries at Ngā Puna Wai against the Warriors and for West provided a tantalising insight of what he is capable of.
“Caius was one of the standouts in the club comp and he’s impressive for his age,” Auimatagi says.
“I’ve got no qualms about him making the transition to Premiership level, just like how well he played against the Warriors.”
The coach admits it is hard for the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls not to have half an eye on the big games against NSW Country and Toa Samoa next month.
Toa Samoa fielded players such as Martin Taupau, Anthony Milford, David Nofoaluma, Jorge Taufua, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Aranui junior Jamayne Isaako in their win over Papua New Guinea in June, and will be looking to tune up for their November 2 Oceania Cup blockbuster against Fiji.
“It’s going to be a good test. Just having that fixture against the Warriors at the start of the year showed a few of the boys they’re not far off that level.
“I’m hoping that having four games potentially in the Premiership will set us up well to take on some international competition and showcase the Bulls brand a bit wider, so we’re looking forward to that post-Premiership.”
Showcasing Ngā Puna Wai to a wider audience with five representative fixtures in less than four weeks shapes as the perfect way to bring down the curtain on a watershed year for Canterbury Rugby League.
“CRL will really turn it on and (the Ngā Puna Wai game against Counties Manukau) coincides with the French 19s playing Canterbury (20s) a couple of days earlier (on September 27), so it will be a great weekend of footy,” Auimatagi says.
“The boys will be looking forward to having the first Bulls game on the new pitch.
“(Grand Final Day) was great – something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, like a lot of locals in Canterbury.
“Seeing a Grand Final Day with multiple games being played, the changing room facilities, the turf – it’s awesome. There was a lot of positive feedback from players and officials right across the day, so it’s great for our game going forward.”
ROCKCOTE CANTERBURY BULLS SCHEDULE
NZRL NATIONAL PREMIERSHIP
September 14 – v Akarana Falcons, 3pm @ Pulman Park, Auckland
September 22 – v Waikato, 1pm @ FMG Stadium, Hamilton
September 29 – v Counties Manukau Stingrays, 1pm @ Ngā Puna Wai, Christchurch
October 12 – v NSW Country @ Ngā Puna Wai, Christchurch
October 25 – v Toa Samoa @ Ngā Puna Wai, Christchurch
Photo Credit: CMG Sports