Chill wind for Lee as Bay battle relegation

By ANENDRA SINGH sports editor

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IT'S A balmy spring day but you can't help feeling Danny Lee is still trying to find a sense of warmth on the heels of a never-ending season, in the mould of someone attempting to shrug off a persistent bot.

"It's pretty tough for everyone at the moment," the rookie assistant coach of the Hawke's Bay Magpies says before they head north for the Ranfurly Shield challenge against Waikato today.

"I'm obviously in the position that I'm brand new as well and didn't really expect to be in this position, to be honest."

That position is the cold comfort of finding the Magpies on the last rung of the ITM Cup premiership table, desperately needing a victory today to stave off relegation to the lower-tier championship.

"I'm a local boy who is born and bred here and I want to do everything I can for this team and for us to succeed," he says as he and coach Craig Philpott eye a victory and the Log of Wood to boot.

"It does take it's toll, not only on me but my family as well. I'm just trying to be as positive as I can for this Waikato game and, hopefully, come away with a result.

"I've been learning and growing in my role this year and, hopefully, I'll look back in a year or two and find this as an invaluable experience," the former All Black halfback and Magpies skipper says.

Should the Magpies prove the pundits and TAB wrong, they will need Canterbury to beat the Bay of Plenty Steamers tomorrow to remain in the premiership next year.

Realistically, though, what are the Magpies' chances of winning today considering they have had three wins to date, Lee?

"Very good. If we can do what we did to Canterbury in their first 20 to 25 minutes last night - it was probably some of the better rugby we played this year," he says optimistically, adding it's imperative for the Bay to put Waikato under pressure over 80 minutes to yield mistakes.

The underdogs tag sits comfortably with him. He says Waikato have had their share of turmoil this season but played an excellent game only a fortnight ago against Taranaki to lift the shield and push their tails up.

"A lot of people have said to me in the past few days that if we can take the shield what's gone this season will mean nothing, but it still hurts.

"It cuts pretty deep, especially if we have people close to you and the general talk of what's going on around the community."

Fundamentally, Lee feels the youthful appearance of the Magpies squad has a direct correlation with the decimation of their mature stocks due to injuries.

Reflecting on the personnel the Magpies had on paper in January, Lee hastens to add if those players had been fit and available then the Magpies wouldn't be facing relegation.

High-profile players coming off a rigorous Super Rugby stint combined with the lack of preparation time for the ITM Cup didn't help their cause.

Effectively they had only a week with the Chiefs players before their opener against Auckland in Napier.

"Filter those players into what we're doing and how we're doing and it's quite different from what's been going on in the past few years."

While it might be misguided, Lee felt a glance at the squad list before the season instilled his belief the Magpies could have won the competition.

"The team we had on the paper is completely different from the team we have on the paper right now," he says, feeling their recruitment wasn't "too bad" in certain areas.

"A lot of changes have been happening, which is something you have when you have two new coaches in a slightly different set-up.

"What we've been doing with the guys we had here and then to have a week with guys back from Super Rugby was a tough ask."

He rattles out a list of the walking wounded, especially the marquee players such as Richard Buckman, Zac Guildford, Dan Waenga, Chris Eaton, Tua Saseve, Nick McLennan and skipper Michael Coman.

"We're definitely not making excuses for any of those things but the reality is we've had our ups and downs with those circumstances.

"It's trying times for myself and Craig, who are obviously new to this level and we haven't really wanted these results.

"It's not through a lack of trying or a lack of belief but it is what it is."

Working more accurately as a team and making better decisions on the field under pressure were vital.

With inexperienced players in some positions and a lack of depth, the Magpies have found themselves in an uncompromising position.

"Although we've made a few changes in the backline we've done it for a reason. [That is] to have some sort of impact and a desire to get over the gain line, score tries and put points on the board.

"You know, I'd love to have had the same backline for the whole season but injuries are out of our control and we have to make do with the blokes who are available."

Maritino Nemani was the Magpies' strongest strike weapon when the season started but Lee saw a lot of the Fijian winger's attributes as the perfect impetus required in the centre.

His imposing frame combined with the ability of carrying the ball, hoofing it and packing a solid defence came to the fore.

Perhaps his most devastating attribute is chasing up-and-unders with bone-jarring tackles to prompt opposition receivers to cough up possession.

Penikolo Latu - making the most of his injection on the wing with an undeniable surge of enthusiasm and energy - had dramatically changed the equation.

"Between keeping him there and putting Tino in the centre we were hoping he [Nemani] would give up that desired attack and desired outcome we wanted but, I suppose, it didn't quite work."

Nemani returned to the wing against Canterbury on Wednesday night and will assume that mantle against Waikato today.

"It's a matter of tinkering and maybe trying a few things because of the injuries we've had and trying to make the best of a pretty uncomfortable position."

Lee says a team doesn't often have significant reasons to play the last game of a season and today's Ranfurly Shield challenge is one of them.

"We have to stay in the premiership with the points and the shield's on the line.

"I'd love to hold the shield but at the same time I'd rather take the points to secure our premiership position."

While Bay fans have their opinion, Lee feels four points are crucial, with the Magpies' fate resting on Canterbury beating the Bay of Plenty Steamers tomorrow.

"We have a lot of our guys representing the Chiefs this year and they've been in Hamilton a long time so we're expecting them to step up to play against their mates in Super Rugby, but it'll be a massive occasion.

"To have an opportunity to take the Ranfurly Shield and secure those points is what we play rugby for and that's the no-holds barred sort of attitude we want from our boys."

Pivotal to the coaches' expectation is the troops showing some pride in the jersey and a modicum of belief in themselves and their teammates to grind out 80 minutes on the paddock.

With Richard Buckman's cast off on Wednesday, Lee was hoping to catch a glimpse of the utility back but his arm is too weak with inaction over four months: "Even though people would like to see him it would have been a tough ask for him and the other guys in the squad.

"The team won't change dramatically from the team that played last night [Wednesday] but we just hope that that team can do it for themselves and Hawke's Bay for an 80-minute game."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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