Spotlight on the Heartland Championship

South Canterbury

South Canterbury has extended their unbeaten run to 25 consecutive games. The closest they came to coming unstuck was in Ōamaru against North Otago last Saturday. South Canterbury came back from 5-0, 15-7 and 22-14 down to steal a 26-22 win from a home side that bossed the 2021 and 2022 champions for such long periods that few would have argued if the final scoreline had favoured North Otago. South Canterbury's game is built around big ball runners like Siu Kakala, Anthony Amato, Tevita Ahikovi and Solomone Lavaka and the attacking prowess of First-Five Sam Briggs and winger Liueli Simote.  The win against North Otago meant South Canterbury retained the Hanan Shield, and the Bill Direen and Phil Gard memorial cups.

Thames Valley are undefeated with four victories over Whanganui (36-33), Poverty Bay (24-17), West Coast (30-22) and King Country (27-21). Their first round victory over Whanganui at Cooks Gardens, in a match with five tries to each side, was especially thrilling. The hosts led 14-12 at halftime but were overcome in a match that featured 18 score changes. Swamp Foxes winger Fletcher Morgan excelled with two tries, four conversions and a penalty for a stash of 21 points. Harry Lafituanai scored a memorable try from a chip and chase.

Although Whanganui have enjoyed a far superior record than the Foxes, with 31 victories from 39 games played since 1923 before this weekend, including 11 of 13 Heartland matches, the Valley have provided stern opposition since ending Whanganui’s golden era with a surprise 17-7 Meads Cup semi final upset at Cooks Gardens in 2018, a first success in 17 years.

North Otago started 2023 with smashing wins over Mid Canterbury (43-24) and Wairarapa Bush (50-3) but two losses have seen them drop outside the Top Four. This weekend they host Whanganui in Oamaru in a clash of the two unions with the best records in Heartland rugby, which started in 2006. Whanganui has six Meads Cup finals and were runners-up three times, also winning two Lochore Cups. North Otago has claimed Meads Cup success three times and the Lochore Cup twice.  All North Otago’s three Meads Cups were won on home soil against Whanganui - 25-8 in 2007, 39-18 in 2010 and 33-19 in 2019. Whanganui beat the Old Golds twice in Lochore Cup finals - 14-12 at Ōamaru in 2014 and 22-16 on Cooks Gardens in 2021. The two unions have played 33 times since 1930, with Whanganui winning 24 times, including nine of 15 Heartland fixtures, but North Otago have won six of 10 Heartland home games. No. 8 Junior Fakatoufifita has been a real standout for North Otago.

Whanganui are 2-2 in 2023 but produced their best performance of the season last Saturday with a 36-12 over West Coast. Centre Alekesio Vakarorogo scored a second half hat-trick.

Troy Tauwhare out of the Kiwi club brought up his 100th first class match last Saturday when his beloved East Coast were beaten by Whanganui. He has played 93 games for East Coast along with seven for the New Zealand XV and Heartland Teams. Tauwhare marked the occasion by scoring two tries which took him past a century of first class points too. He made his debut for West Coast in 2009.

It was only a moment of individual brilliance from former Hurricanes fullback Andrie Taylor that denied Ngati Porou East Coast a win in Masterton against Wairarapa Bush in the first round. Since then, the Coast has won three games on the trot and twice defended the Bill Osborne Taonga against Mid Canterbury (19-8) and North Otago (38-29). This weekend they take on local rivals Poverty Bay (1-3) who they prized possession of the trophy from in 2022. Poverty Bay leads the head to head rivalry 40-16. East Coast is especially strong in the maul and superbly led by halfback Sam Parkes.

Poverty Bay fullback Ricardo Patricio scored a try that was a contender for the individual try of the season in the Bay’s 20-23 loss to Mid Canterbury last Saturday. Patricio fielded a clearing kick a couple of metres inside the Bay 10-metre line. He proceeded to chip kick the ball over incoming Mid Canterbury players, got the bounce, stepped inside one defender, and left the rest for dead in a thrilling 60m burst. Mid Canterbury won the match 23-20. Poverty Bay wore special pink jerseys in the match which are being auctioned on Trade Me as a Gisborne East Coast Cancer Society fundraiser. Mid Canterbury lost their first two games, but have rallied to win their next two under the captaincy of Adam Williamson.

The leading points scorer is Logan Ross (West Coast) with 39 points. Siu Kakala (South Canterbury) has scored six tries.

New Zealand’s best Heartland players will have the opportunity to don the black jersey in November for the Heartland XV under the leadership of Nigel Walsh and newly appointed Assistant Coach Miah Nikora. The Heartland XV are scheduled to play two matches against Canterbury Development in Methven on November 1 and the NZ Barbarians in Oamaru on November 4. Walsh will make his third-straight appearance as Heartland XV Head Coach (2021, 2022 and 2023), following his success with South Canterbury. Nikora proudly hails from Poverty Bay where his coaching journey began as Assistant Coach in 2019. The Heartland beat the New Zealand Police XV 84-14 in Taupo last year. Thames Valley fullback Todd Doolan converted all 12 tries.

With thanks to: Whanganui Chronicle, Gisborne Herald, Heartland Championship Facebook pages.