The dust has barely settled on an extraordinary CRL Grand Final Day, but the province’s elite players are already gearing up for the New Era Glazing Canterbury Bulls’ 2022 NZRL Men’s Premiership campaign.

A 25-strong squad brimming with quality experience and exciting youth – including 15 players who featured in Sunday’s epic Linwood-Hornby decider – was named earlier this week.

The Bulls get underway with a non-Premiership clash against Wellington at Jerry Collins Park in Porirua on Saturday, August 27 as the old rivals square off for the Centenary Shield and the Adrian Shelford Trophy. From there, they play all three Premiership matches at Ngā Puna Wai on consecutive Sundays against Waikato (September 11), Ākarana (September 18) and Counties-Manukau (September 25) in a quest to feature in the North Harbour-hosted final on October 1.

New head coach Jed Lawrie, a long-time assistant to Andrew Auimatagi in the Canterbury setup, is eager to put the heartbreak of his Panthers’ last-gasp grand final loss aside and sink his teeth into the Bulls’ national foray.

“I’m excited to get into Bulls camp and work with these boys, I think the squad selected is the form players of the club comp so I’m looking forward to it,” Lawrie says.

“Overall it’s a good balance. We’ve got a few boys in their second and third campaigns, we’ve got some older boys with experience and some good young kids who have the ability to really compete well at premiership level.”

A notable aspect of the squad is the return to the red-and-black jersey of players who have enjoyed lengthy stints in Australia, including Halswell Hornets centre Ken Tofilau and Celebration Lions forward Phillip Nati.

“It’s good to have Ken available – he was unavailable last year when he was probably the form centre of the comp, [which he] was again this year,” Lawrie explains.

“Then you’ve got Zinzaan Martin back from Australia who adds that Australian experience as well.”

Stalwarts such as Daniel Hartley, Erwin Sauni, Reuben Te Amo and Taniela Leka also bring a wealth of experience in vital positions.

Barnstorming winger Penitito Ilalio – a standout for the New Era Glazing Canterbury Bulls in recent seasons – arrives in representative camp on a high after his astonishing 50-metre solo try to snatch the grand final for the Keas in the dying seconds.

With tyro tryscoring machines Chrisitan Fetu (Hornby) and Makarini Mohi (Linwood) on board, Canterbury certainly lack nothing in the backline firepower department.

“The balance of all of our wings in the squad, they’re big, strong, and have the ability to break open a game,” the coach enthuses.

“It’s definitely an exciting squad.”

Sunday’s Mel Cooke Trophy winner, Uriah Tuli, headlines a group of young players backing up for their second Bulls campaign.

While it’s very much a new-look group overall, Lawrie and the Bulls are looking to bury the disappointment of an underwhelming 2021 schedule. With Ākarana and Counties-Manukau stuck in lockdown, Canterbury was expected to dominate all comers – but the season will predominantly be remembered for a historic defeat to Otago and a loss to Upper Central in the final.

Lawrie reveals last year’s slip in performance will play a role in the Bulls’ 2022 build-up.

“We’ll touch on the last couple of years – we haven’t been at Canterbury Bulls standard when we’ve put on the jersey.

“There will be a lot around instilling some pride in that jersey. It has a big legacy and we’re looking for this group to stamp their mark on it.”

But focus will quickly move to the Wellington road trip, where Lawrie is hoping to see players to put their hands up for Premiership spots and build some cohesion on both sides of the ball.

“I’ll move guys around a bit, give them an opportunity, see how the combinations work.

“But I’m probably just looking for overall flow and defending well together. Going into the Premiership you really need to be a strong defensive team and that will be one of our main focuses.”

The NZRL’s promotion-relegation format makes Canterbury’s first-up Premiership showdown with Waikato especially important – though it shapes as an ideal lead-in to hosting the big guns from Auckland.

“We’ll try not to think about [potential relegation] and focus on getting this group to show the best of their abilities on the field and everything else should fall into place,” Lawrie offers.

“Counties and Ākarana have selected very strong squads – they’ve got NRL experience so they’ll be the teams to beat. But it’s also exciting for our boys to match it against some of those players. It will be a good challenge for them.”

Playing all three Premiership fixtures at Ngā Puna Wai shapes as a sizeable advantage for the Bulls, though again they will be seeking to atone for the aforementioned shock losses at home to the Whalers and Stallions in 2021.

Meanwhile, Lawrie also highlighted his support crew – which includes long-time representative collaborator and club rival Auimatagi as an assistant coach – as a key plus ahead of a big month.

“We want to try and get good crowd support, get everybody down there and try and make Ngā Puna Wai the home of rugby league.

“Get back to the Addington Showgrounds (and) Rugby League Park days – the ‘killing fields’ – making it really hard for the teams from up north to come here and play.

“I’ve got a great staff, obviously Andrew (Auimatagi) is still on board, (trainer) Lee (Mou) and Mel (Tukupua) as manager, and I’ve also got Louis Fanene, who brings Canterbury Bulls and Australian experience, into the coaching staff.

“That will make my job a lot easier.”

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