Less than two weeks after another Pat Smith Trophy Challenge grand final epic at Ngā Puna Wai, the SENZ Canterbury Bulls get their 2023 NZRL National Premiership campaign underway at the same venue against Counties Manukau Stingrays.

The marquee showdown kicks off at 2pm and is part of a Ngā Puna Wai double-header, with the Trillo Metals Canterbury Women’s team facing their Counties Manukau counterparts at 4pm.

It’s a fast turnaround for SENZ Canterbury Bulls coach Jed Lawrie to prepare his squad for the expanded and extended Premiership. Last season, Lawrie steered the Bulls on an impressive path to the final in the four-team competition, where they went down to Akarana Falcons.

The 2023 edition will feature six teams – SENZ Canterbury Bulls, Otago Whalers, Counties Manukau Stingrays, Akarana Falcons, Auckland Vulcans and Waikato Mana – split into two pools. Teams will play the other two sides in their pool plus one cross-pool match, with the top two qualifiers in each pool progressing to a newly-introduced semi-final weekend.

Lawrie is impressed with how his charges are coming together amid a truncated build-up.

“We’ve got a good mix of new, young talent, some experienced boys from the last few years, and also welcome back some older boys like Jope Tagicakibau and Champ Betham, and an old head like Josh Everett,” he says.

“(Daniel Hartley) did a really good job last year, he’s moved into the co-captaincy role with Uale (Peneli), so he’ll lead us around – he always does a great job in the halves.

“There’s a couple of young kids there with Ngaheke (Nepata) – he’s been on the radar for a while now – and Peneli Peneli, Uale’s younger brother, so they get an opportunity.”

While playmaker Hartley – who collected the Mel Cooke Trophy for the second time as best on ground in Linwood Keas’ nail-biting 16-14 grand final win over Hornby Panthers – shapes as the SENZ Canterbury Bulls’ linchpin, Lawrie is confident the experience gained by a host of tyros blooded in recent campaigns will help spearhead a drive for their first national title since 2014.

“I’m looking forward to seeing George Faaiva (becoming) a leader there in the middle, this is his third year now so I’ll really look at him to stand up. He got voted as a leader in the group so I’ll be looking for him to be really strong.

“It’s a hard one with only two field sessions – you try and piece stuff together – but the core from last year is who we’ll be leaning on, there’s some really strong leaders.”

Cultivating a unbreakable culture of commitment and respect for the Bulls jersey – regardless of who is pulling it on – was a major part of Andrew Auimatagi’s lengthy tenure as Canterbury’s coach, with Lawrie his long-serving assistant.

That focus remains a key part of the SENZ Canterbury Bulls’ preparation with Lawrie’s and Auimatagi’s roles reversed.

“We had a classroom session last Thursday, we talked about what we want to stand for and a bit of reflection around when they hang up their jersey at the end of the campaign – what do they want that jersey to say about them?” Lawrie reveals.

“There was some good stuff to come out of that. And the field session on Tuesday against St Thomas was a really good opposed session, then we’ve got another on Thursday.

“It’s a short turnaround but we’re slowly piecing it together.”

The Bulls clinched their spot in the 2022 NZRL National Premiership final thanks to a stirring 26-18 victory over the Stingrays at Ngā Puna Wai – a result they are aiming to repeat to not only take a big step towards topping their pool, but also proving they deserve to be considered on level footing with the perennial heavyweights from up north.


“We talked about last year and that we want to be regularly beating the Counties and Akaranas of the competition – we don’t just want to beat them one year, then lose for the next couple of years,” Lawrie says.

“We want to create that winning habit against those Auckland teams. We’ll get a home semi if we finish our pool first, so this Saturday is a big game for us.”

After facing the Stingrays on Saturday, the SENZ Canterbury Bulls host Auckland Vulcans in their cross-pool encounter on September 10 before heading south for a crunch game against Otago Whalers at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium.


Josh Aileone (Halswell Hornets)
Kyle Amer (Linwood Keas)
Champ Betham (Hornby Panthers)
Matt Black (Halswell Hornets)
Eti Collins (Hornby Panthers)
Josh Everett (Halswell Hornets)
George Faaiva (Linwood Keas)
Chanel Feala (Linwood Keas)
Cam Godfrey (Northern Bulldogs)
Daniel Hartley (c) (Linwood Keas)
Ben Ilalio (Linwood Keas)
Taniela Leka (Northern Bulldogs)
Mika Moemalo (Linwood Keas)
Muipu Nati (Hornby Panthers)
Ngaheke Nepata (Hornby Panthers)
Peneli Peneli (Eastern Eagles)
Uale Peneli (c) (Eastern Eagles)
Etelani Pouli (Linwood Keas)
Jerome Taefu (Linwood Keas)
Devaun Thompson (Hornby Panthers)
Uriah Tuli (Linwood Keas)
Jaedon Wellington (Hornby Panthers)
Cyrus Timo-Latu (Eastern Eagles)
Jope Tagicakibau (Riccarton Knights)
Jimmy Wihongi (Eastern Eagles)

2023 Canterbury Bulls Season LaunchNgai Puna Wai, Christchurch, New Zealand15/08/2023
2023 Copyright Image: Matthew Musson/©MattyLouisPhotography
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