NEW BREED USHER IN 20 YEARS OF THE BULLS
New Era Glazing Canterbury Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi has named 10 debutants for Saturday’s clash against Counties Manukau Stingrays at Ngā Puna Wai to kick off the NZRL National Premiership – a campaign that marks 20 years since the Bulls’ triumph in the maiden Bartercard Cup.
While there’s a core group of experienced players – headlined by captain Alex Todd, Ben Ilalio, Vinnie Paul and Will Tafua, along with 2019 Bulls sensation Caius Fa’atili – the volume of newcomers is the most striking aspect of the first Canterbury line-up of the season.
“I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen at training,” Auimatagi says.
“We’ve got quite a new group but the boys are full of energy and seem to be gelling really well. They’re really receptive to what we’ve been doing.
“There’s still a couple of guys that have got a few games under their belt, but there’s going to be some transition and some new guys coming into the jersey. It was always going to happen with some notable rep players nearing the end – it’s just exciting to see that next crop coming through.”
Hornby halves duo Brad Campbell and Tevin Arona were integral to the Bulls’ drive to the 2019 final. But Halswell’s Aaron Fiveash and Northern’s Zac Riley will make their first appearance at this level together in the No. 6 and 7 jumpers this weekend.
Auimatagi is confident the fresh pairing is up to the task of steering the New Era Glazing Bulls through the upcoming month of rep footy.
“I like what I’m seeing from Zac and Aaron, they’re really eager to learn and they’ve run with what we’ve thrown at them.
“We’ve also get Tevin there in a mentoring, assistant role, so he’s doing some great stuff with them. We’ve also got young Sincere Harraway, who’s an exciting young talent, as a possible half option as well.”
While the Stingrays and Akarana Falcons players may be short of a gallop this weekend after the ARL competitions were brought to an end early by the return of COVID-19 restrictions, Canterbury’s fortune in finishing the Massetti Cup and staging the Grand Final three weeks ago could provide a crucial advantage to the New Era Glazing Bulls.
“It helps us that we finished the club season,” Auimatagi says.
“Most of the boys played in the finals. The Auckland teams have some talented and experienced players to pick from but hopefully having those extra games in the legs will help our boys.”
Meanwhile, Auimatagi – a former Canterbury player, before taking the coaching reins of the provincial team in 2016 – reveals the 20-year anniversary of the first Bulls campaign has played a significant part in the team’s preparations.
“It’s a big part of it – over the last few years I’ve tried to get some of the ex-players and coaches in to speak to the boys and do jersey presentations,” he explains.
“It’s something we’re keen to continue with as we look to educate the boys about the history of the jersey and the brand. It’s a strong brand, the Bulls, and we had a team session last week and talked about 20 years since the inaugural Bartercard Cup team and that final win.
“It was cool to rattle off some names and share an insight – (assistant coach) Jamie Lester and I both played against some of those players and came through as young guys in the Canterbury system.”
New Zealand Rugby League unveiled a bold new national competition in 2000. The Bartercard Cup featured 12 teams – including just one from the South Island, the Canterbury Bulls – in a 22-round home-and-away premiership.
Coached by former Canterbury and New Zealand prop Gerard Stokes, who had been in charge of Canterbury Country Cardinals in the Lion Red Cup from 1994-96 and the Canterbury rep team since ’97, the Bulls finished second at the end of the regular season.
The Maurice Emslie-led Bulls upset table-topping Otahuhu Leopards 38-24 in an epic grand final at Carlaw Park, with fullback Lusi Sione a standout man-of-the-match. The Canterbury side also included the likes of Shane Beyers, Jonny Limmer and Robert Henare.
After a preliminary final finish in 2001, assistant coach Phil Prescott took the reins from Stokes. Prescott brought former New Zealand, Canterbury and Western Suburbs Magpies hardman Brent Stuart – a green but eager coaching prospect – on board as his assistant.
But a squad stripped of its experienced core (though notable for blooding young forwards Corey Lawrie and Chris Bamford) slumped to 10th in 2002. A mini-rebuild was required.
“When I played for Canterbury everyone was keen on getting down to training – I think there was a few commitment issues there,” 13-Test Kiwi Stuart recalls.
“But at the end of that 2002 season, (Prescott) took a pretty major approach to the following year … put a big pre-season into them and got back to that culture that you really need to win. We made three grand finals in the next four years – we only won one, mind you, but we were definitely a dominant force in the Bartercard for those four years.”
The rejuvenated Bulls performed a remarkable turnaround in 2003, topping the table in the 16-round regular season before outlasting Marist-Richmond brothers 32-28 in a grand final thriller. Captained by Beyers, the side included prolific try-scorer Eddie Hei Hei, who tragically passed away in 2015.
Canterbury made subsequent grand finals in 2005-06, losing to Mt Albert Lions (24-22) and Auckland Lions (25-18) respectively. Stuart succeeded Prescott ahead of the 2007 campaign.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Phil and I’ve got to thank him a lot, because he coached me as a player – I really respected him then – and I took a lot of things from Phil when I went coaching on my own,” Stuart says.
The ’07 season would be the last long format Bartercard Cup, the Bulls finishing third and going down narrowly in the prelim final.
Renamed the Bartercard Premiership, it reverted to a six-province competition consisting of just five rounds in 2008. Auckland’s top players, previously turning out for club sides, combined in one line-up and defeated Canterbury 38-18 in that year’s Mt Smart Stadium-hosted Grand Final.
Retribution was just 12 months away.
“It was a bigger reward when you actually got to beat (Auckland),” Stuart says.
“It’s quite ironic, I did it as a player 16 years prior in ’93 under Frank (Endacott). We finished top qualifiers then and they gave us a home final.
“(In 2009) we went through unbeaten in the round-robin and I think (CRL CEO) Duane (Fyfe) put up a bit of an argument with New Zealand Rugby League that we should be having the final at home.
“We got the home final and, like we did in ’93, we got up and won it. I don’t think they like coming down here to play finals – maybe that’s why we have to fight to get them here.”
The Limmer-led Bulls produced a courageous 26-20 comeback win over Auckland at Rugby League Park that ranks among Canterbury more memorable triumphs. Down 16-6 at the break, the shorthanded Bulls snatched victory through man-of-the-match fullback Johnny Aranga’s deadlock-breaking try in the shadows of the fulltime siren.
“It was a real buzz that day, especially because I had two of my top players – Vince Whare and Craig Smith – have a pretty serious head clash early in the second half,” Stuart, who joined Endacott, Stokes and Prescott as champion coaches that day, remembers.
“We lost both guys and I thought, ‘we’re in some trouble now’, but to the credit of the rest of the side we got up right at the death. They never gave up, fought right to the end and got the reward.”
Stuart remained at the helm as Canterbury Bulls made way for South Island Scorpions’ temporary berth in the National Competition from 2010. He stepped down following the Scorpions’ loss to Auckland Pride in the 2011 decider.
Stuart pinpointed a handful of players during his tenure on the Bulls’ coaching staff who embodied the commitment and pride in the red-and-black jersey reminiscent of Canterbury’s early-1990s heyday.
“Shane Beyers was definitely one, Jonny Limmer was another – those two really stand out as competitors for me. And Aaron Harris as well. It’s no coincidence these guys captained Canterbury.
“They had a bit of an X-factor about them when it comes to leadership, willingness to win and doing what it takes to be successful.”
Another former Canterbury stalwart and Kiwis rep, Mike Dorreen, took over as Scorpions coach in 2012 and guided the restored Bulls through the 2013 National Competition.
Halswell coach Darrell Coad, a premiership-winning player with the Hornets and a long-time Canterbury trainer under Stokes, Prescott and Stuart, took on the Bulls role in 2014. It was a season that ended in triumph for Coad and the Bulls, but the competition was somewhat overshadowed by controversy.
Canterbury finished level at the top of the table with Counties Manukau and Akarana (who both had superior for-and-against records), each winning five of their six round-robin games. But the Stingrays and Falcons were both disqualified for fielding ineligible players, leaving the Bulls and fourth-placed Waicoa Bay Stallions to square off in the final.
The Bulls duly powered to a 40-8 victory over the Stallions at Mt Smart Stadium – and the coach defiantly says the NZRL’s sanctions on the Auckland teams did nothing to diminish their achievement.
“We still had to go out there and win it – anything can happen in the finals,” Coad asserts.
Determined to show the title victory was deserved, the Bulls stormed into the 2015 final against the Stingrays after another 5-1 campaign. Coad’s charges competed well but ultimately went down 41-10 at Mt Smart.
“There was a lot to prove and once again we were competitive and played really well,” Coad says.
“I had a really good squad, we didn’t change too much from the year before and I had a great staff with me looking after the boys. All the little things make the big things and that’s why on those couple of occasions we were able to make it to the big dance.
“It was great to get there two years in a row; unfortunately we couldn’t quite tie that one off. When you go up against those Auckland sides, they’ve got a lot of players to select from and the competition, dare I say it, is a little bit tougher up there.
“You’re always up against big boys, but when you come from Canterbury you always wear your heart on your sleeve and that’s why we were competitive over those two seasons and got the results we did.
“Chris Bamford was a great leader for us back then, he was unbelievable. We got quite a few players in New Zealand Residents in those years, which was well-deserved. Alex Todd was going really well, the Sauni boys – they all put in their two cents and their best foot forward.
“I see them now and it’s like that was yesterday. Memories last a lifetime and when you see those guys it brings them back; it’s something that will live with me forever, it was a great couple of years.”
Coad did not reapply for coaching position in 2016, but he currently maintains his involvement in rugby league as a referee – as well as following Canterbury’s fortunes. He’s optimistic the New Era Glazing Bulls can build on their strong performances of recent seasons.
“There are challenges at grassroots level … but Andrew (Auimatagi) does a fantastic job, they’ll put their best foot forward. They’ve got a young side but guys with a bit of experience and hopefully they’ll carry that through and be competitive again this year.”
Auimatagi is lining up for his fifth campaign as Canterbury Bulls coach – and his first since stepping away from the Linwood head coaching duties after a tenure that garnered four straight Pat Smith Trophy triumphs, though he did make a brief playing comeback with the Keas.
In assuming the position in 2016, Auimatagi became the first ex-Bulls player to go on and coach the side. A tough, versatile performer, he debuted for the Bulls under Prescott in 2004 and was part of Stuart’s title-winning combination in 2009.
“It was awesome to test yourself against the best in New Zealand, coming up against some first-graders and future NRL stars and Kiwis, so that was always pretty cool,” Auimatagi says.
“But the big thing was just coming together with guys from across the club scene and getting to know them, harnessing that unity for the red-and-black jersey, learning off some really awesome coaches, travelling away every second week and that camaraderie.”
Auimatagi’s Bulls teams fell agonisingly short of the NZRL National Premiership final from 2016-18, missing out on for-and-against in all three seasons. But an unbeaten round-robin campaign in 2019 secured a historic home final at Ngā Puna Wai, where the Bulls were overwhelmed by the Falcons 28-10.
While securing the silverware remains the ultimate goal, Auimatagi revels in seeing his players establish the bonds that made his days as a rep player so enjoyable.
“You just see the connections and relationships forming and strengthening every session.
“That’s one of the big rewards, seeing those lifelong relationships form and hopefully that translates into some good footy being played on the field. Having that understanding and connection with each other is really key.
“It’s been a crazy year, but with the NRL finals ramping up as well I think there will be a spotlight on rugby league. With the Women’s Premiership it just adds another layer of excitement for the women’s game (in general) and here in Canterbury, so for them to play alongside the Bulls is pretty historic and hopefully we can get some more young females entering our game.”
NZRL NATIONAL PREMIERSHIP
4:05pm, Saturday, October 3 – Canterbury Bulls v Counties Manukau Stingrays @ Ngā Puna Wai
2:05pm, Sunday, October 11 – Canterbury Bulls v Mid Central Vipers @ Ngā Puna Wai
2:05pm, Saturday, October 17 – Akarana Falcons v Canterbury Bulls @ Pulman Park
Thanks to the support of the NZ Government and Sport NZ, the NZRL Men’s and Sky Sport Women’s Premiership competitions will kick off October 3 and proceed over four weeks. All Premiership fixtures will be televised live on Sky Sport 4. https://t.co/L8bCDCLFUh
— NZ Rugby League (@NZRL_Kiwis) September 3, 2020