BARTERCARD NZ CRL MEN’S PREMIERSHIP CLUBS PRIMED FOR HUGE 2021 SEASON
This time last year the Canterbury Rugby League community was negotiating the second week of New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown, the season put on indefinite hiatus before belatedly getting underway in June. The disruptive spectre of COVID-19 has not disappeared, but the 2021 CRL club campaign is set to commence in its traditional early-April timeslot this Saturday.
The exciting Round 1 line-up for the 2021 Bartercard NZ CRL Men’s Premiership features two matches at Ngā Puna Wai – Halswell Hornets v Papanui Tigers and Eastern Eagles v Celebration Lions – along with Hornby Panthers’ home clash with Riccarton Knights and a Grand Final replay between Linwood Keas and Northern Bulldogs at Canterbury Park.
The sense of anticipation and excitement among the eight Premier grade clubs was palpable at last Monday’s CRL season launch.
New Era Glazing Canterbury Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi – a four-time premiership-winning mentor with Linwood before stepping down at the end of 2019 – pinpointed a couple of teams capable of shaking up the Massetti Cup’s natural order this season.
“I’m expecting the Bulldogs to continue their momentum of the last few years, they’ve become a good challenger at the top there,” Auimatagi said.
“But also Halswell Hornets, I think with Walter (Wilson) coming in (as coach) and also some good recruitment, those guys will probably be among the movers and shakers.”
Club stalwart Wilson, a star of the Hornets’ 1995 Grand Final triumph, returns after two seasons in charge of Ryde-Eastwood Hawks in the third-tier Sydney Shield – winning the competition in 2019.
“It’s a great opportunity to come back from Aussie and do what I’m doing with Halswell,” Wilson enthuses.
“It’s my club, I always say to anyone in my car if we’re driving past the Domain, ‘a moment’s silence please’, so it’s a great honour for me to be coaching them.
“I learned a hell of a lot over there and the majority was probably from the players – they tend to help you select sides when you see combinations working together. We had 26 rounds that first year then the finals campaign, and you had to do your homework on the team you were playing every week, so I learned a lot from that.”
The Hornets finished sixth in the truncated 2020 competition but showed signs of significant improvement, while the addition of veteran premiership-winning Linwood half Toi Sepuloni is a huge boost to their bid to return to the playoffs.
“We’re wanting to compete this year. We did that in our trial against the (West) Coast, they’re always physical so it was a good run and a bit of team bonding, as you do when you’re away.
“They’re a good bunch of guys, a young squad, but we’ve got the benefit of having guys like Toi coming back to Halswell and he’ll captain the side. Brad Austin and Josh Everett have got a fair bit of experience behind them, so guys like that merging with the youth is going to be pretty exciting to see what we can mould from that.”
The Keas are out to extend their reign over the CRL premiership to six years, having set a new competition record with five straight Grand Final victories in 2020 with a heart-stopping win over Northern Bulldogs.
Under the tutelage of former star players Iuma Mulitalo and Aga Fiso, few would argue Linwood remains the team to beat. The brilliant performances of fullback Mapu Uasi for South Island in the NZRL National 20s Competition suggest he is ready to take his performances up another level from his impressive rookie year for the Keas.
But the Bulldogs are primed to go one better this year after coming desperately close to knocking the Keas off in last season’s epic decider. After coming in as an assistant coach in 2020, local legend Frank Endacott takes over as head coach.
The former Canterbury, New Zealand, Auckland Warriors and Wigan coach takes on his first head coach role in the CRL premiership since the mid-1980s.
“I helped out last year and it’s just a continuation of that really, but I’m really enjoying it, Endacott says.
“We’ve had three months of pre-season and a good effort in our first trial against Riccarton. I’m pleased about the stage we are at.
“The squad’s looking good, we’ve got a couple of new ones and couple that have left. But basically we’ve got a similar side to last year.”
Endacott is confident the experience of a Grand Final appearance – particularly as Northern fought so valiantly against all-conquering Linwood – will prove invaluable this year.
“We were disappointed obviously, the boys played real well in that game and tried hard, and it could have gone either way. The good thing for our club was for the first time we had two teams in the Grand Final (Premiers and Canterbury Cup) – they both lost, but both made it.
“We’d like to just go that one better this year. I think it’s fair to say we’re building a little bit and want to progress on last year. We want to play a fast, open style and do the hard work, just compete every game. You’re never guaranteed the win, but I just want to see them compete every week – and I’ve got no doubts they’ll do that.”
Neighbouring archrivals Eastern Eagles and Celebration Lions finished fifth and eighth (last) in 2020 respectively.
Both clubs will be hell-bent on improving on those standings. Eddie Timo-Latu remains at the helm of the Eagles, while Sione Ah Kuoi is the Lions’ coach.
It’s been a lean few years for Papanui Tigers since winning their last title in 2015, including a seventh-place finish last season. But with one on the club’s centenary in 2022, the Tigers are determined to gradually work their way back into contention under new coach Sonny Hammond.
“We want to rebuild from the bottom and work our way back up. This season we’ll just be focused on the simple things and go from there,” former Canterbury Bulls rep Hammond said.
“Last year wasn’t easy with COVID, a lot of clubs lost players through work and everything else. The numbers haven’t been too bad – but they can always be better.
“Everyone’s excited, we’re got the centenary next year, so we’re building towards that as well.”
Hammond said veteran forward Roger Tafua and Seth Tauamiti are the players he will be relying on to lead a new-look Papanui combination through the 2021 campaign.
Riccarton Knights reached the top-four playoffs last year, but coach Jamie Lester is reticent to set the expectation bar too high following a few key playing personnel setbacks.
“There’s a good feeling, but there’s a lot of turnover,” Lester explained.
“There’s a few not returning – most notably Jope Tagicakibau, obviously he’ll be missed.
“And another player who would’ve played Bulls last year had he not got injured, Zion Kamana. Hopefully he’ll be back, but he’s had surgery on his pec so will be out until at least midway through the season.”
Veteran Justin Lynch will also be missing for the first six weeks of the premiership after suffering an injury during the pre-season – which may prompt Lester to call upon another Knights great who just can’t seem to resist pulling on the boots.
“Shane Tamatea is officially our trainer, but we’ll see…I’d say there will be stages of the season he’ll be playing,” Lester said of the icon who brought up 300 appearances for Riccarton in 2020.
“It’s going to be an interesting year. We’ve got a lot of new players in, quite young and inexperienced rugby league players. I’m excited for what they’ll bring to the team – there’s a good feel, but where we might have our challengers are against some of those stronger, more seasoned clubs.
“There’s definitely some potential and I’m excited to see how they progress through the season.”
The Knights are likely to lean heavily on experienced half Sean Spooner, while Lester revealed precocious 18s grade graduate Matariri Halbert-Pere is set to feature at fullback.
Few sides will head into 2021 with more fire in the belly than Hornby Panthers. After four consecutive, agonising Grand Final defeats to the Keas, the Panthers were denied a berth in a fifth straight decider by the Bulldogs in a classic preliminary final last year.
Hornby’s task is made harder by the departure of game-breaking back-rower Caius Faatili and champion lock/five-eighth James Baxendale, but coach Jed Lawrie believes the club still boasts the requisite talent and attitude to go all the way.
“I’m excited. We’ve lost a few to Aussie but picked up some young kids and the energy around training keeps it fresh, some of the older boys are excited and I’m excited, so we’re just ready for the season to start now,” Lawrie said.
“We’ve just got to prepare the best we can. Obviously we lose a few (players) like every year – Caius and ‘Baxy’ – but young guys like Sincere (Harraway), who’s going to be our captain, are really keen to put more of the young flair into our team.”
Harraway skippered South Island from hooker in the NZRL National 20s Competition, another step on the versatile wunderkind’s rapid rise. Lawrie confirmed he will play in the halves for Hornby, as he did with poise and maturity beyond his tender years in 2020.
“Sincere has been awesome, you saw last year his potential and we’ve been working with him to get the best out of him. We’re starting to see that now and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the top tier of players in Canterbury this year.
“He did a really good job at half last year, even in the semi when the game was on the line and we were down he scored a nice try. He’s just got that spark and the sense to know what’s in front of him. You could see it in the (NZRL) 20s comp, when he’s got the ball anything can happen.”
In a historic moment to look out for this season out Leslie Park way, the 41-year-old Corey Lawrie is set to line up for Panthers once again – and he could be joined in the first-grade line-up at some stage by his son, Jayton, an outside-back with plenty of promise.
Meanwhile, Lawrie admitted the Bulldogs’ rise to shake up the CRL duopoly the Keas and Panthers have held in recent years was a positive for rugby league in Canterbury – but it doesn’t me he and his charges are any less determined to return to the Grand Final stage in 2021.
“It’s definitely good for the comp. Last year was a really bad injury year for us, but hopefully we’ll get back to where we were the last four years and bring the Pat Smith (Trophy) back to Hornby.”