Rugby: Counties Steelers name injury-depleted squad

By Campbell Burnes

Piers Francis of Counties Manukau. Photo / Getty Images.
Piers Francis of Counties Manukau. Photo / Getty Images.

Super Rugby was not kind to incoming Counties Manukau Steelers coach Darryl Suasua, but he has still named a 32-man Mitre 10 Cup squad with no shortage of talent.

The Chiefs trio of outside back Glen Fisi'iahi, and loose forwards Sam Henwood and Maama Vaipulu all have season-ending injuries, but the loss for the entire campaign of top-rated props Nepo Laulala and Pauliasi Manu will hurt even more acutely.

That will, nevertheless, open the door for the likes of 146kg Bombay club prop Kalolo Tuiloma to show his wares, or Sione Faletau, back from Canterbury.

"There's a lot of potential there. The dimensions, power and explosiveness are quite impressive. If he goes well, there's no reason why other things cannot happen for him," says Suasua of Tuiloma. His club teammate Sam Aiono will look to lock down the loosehead prop berth usually filled by Manu.

Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot returns to the Steelers, having last worn the colours in 2013.

The All Black is something of a provincial nomad but will bring set-piece accuracy, physicality and priceless experience to a youngish pack. Elliot is one of three fit Chiefs players for the Steelers, the others being Sam Vaka and Toni Pulu, and Suasua has his fingers crossed for the remainder of Super Rugby that they come through unscathed. He was relieved to see the Crusaders bow out at the quarter-finals stage, meaning he can get Jimmy Tupou, Jordan Taufua (along with Sione Fifita) back for some rest and reconditioning before they open their Mitre 10 Cup campaign with a crossover game at North Harbour on August 18.

Tupou will again captain the side, but this time with halfback Augustine Pulu who, along with Sione Molia and Sonny Bill Williams, could be back for the first round, as they are leaving the Olympics as soon as the sevens programme is done and dusted.

Lock Ronald Raaymakers and loose forward Dan Hyatt also have long-term injuries, but there is an interesting signing at No 8 in So'otala Fa'aso'o. The 21-year-old captained NZ Schools in 2012 but has not kicked on as his clear talent might have suggested, despite two games for Auckland in 2013. In 2015 he looked to be carrying extra kilograms around the midriff when playing for Grammar TEC in Auckland premier club rugby.

Loaned out to Wairarapa-Bush for the Heartland Championship, he scored three tries in nine games.

This season, he scored eight tries for North Shore in North Harbour premier club play, but just missed the cut for Steve Jackson's squad.

If Suasua and his assistants Semo Sititi and Grant Henson can draw the best out of Fa'aso'o, then it could worthwhile watching him closely. Now that Vaipulu is injured, he could be the man to provide those combative metres for the Steelers.

Another of the 12 newcomers is Pukekohe lock Cameron Skelton, a big unit who is still just 21, and the younger brother of Wallaby Will Skelton.

"He's probably a bit bigger than Will, to be fair. We see him as a guy on the rise and someone who could serve us for a while. He's improved every week in club rugby and we've just been pleased with his progress," says Suasua.

Watch out too for loose forward Viliami Taulani, fresh out of Manurewa High School, where he was a kingpin. He has already played for the Cavaliers and the Chiefs Development XV and looks a classy athlete, says Suasua.

The promising New Zealand Under 20s halfback Jonathan Taumateine will push 2015 incumbent Richard Judd for the No 9 or 20 jerseys, given that Pulu will slot back in as a starter.

Piers Francis was concussed in last Saturday's club final, but will wear the No 10 jersey and the hope is that he can bring the direction he showed for the Steelers for much of 2015 and the Blues in the second half of 2016.

The versatile Orbyn Leger looks set to be used in midfield, where his father Gus Leger played for Tonga.

"I like what he does at 12. He has silky skills and a good kicking game from 12. He played on the wing for the NZ Under 20s," says Suasua.

Sherwin Stowers was back at work today, and will bring some vast experience and leadership to the wing.

Suasua has got around the traps, checking out the club rugby of other provinces who are using the new rules, which was not the case in Counties Manukau. He felt the standard of club rugby, especially amongst the top eight sides, was good and very physical.

"The rules are going to be a big challenge for us and hopefully that doesn't bite us. It's a heck of a lot faster and there will be some adjusting. The Cavaliers struggled on attack and at the breakdown (under the new rules)," he says.

That will mean pre-season games against Taranaki, Samoa A and the 'Game of Three Halves' against Northland and the All Blacks on August 12 will assume vital importance.

Suasua is not about to make any grandiose predictions about how the Steelers may fare in the Premiership in 2016 after two fifth place finishes in 2014-15 until he has seen what his charges show him in pre-season, but if the Chiefs' injury curse does not strike them and the newbies mark up, then do not discount them from the semifinals.

The 2016 Steelers squad is:
Jarred Adams (prop) Pukekohe *
Sam Aiono (prop) Bombay
Sean Bagshaw (prop) Onewhero
Nathan de Thierry (first five) Pukekohe
Hika Elliot (hooker)
So'otala Fa'aso'o (loose forward) North Shore *
Sione Faletau (prop) Patumahoe *
Sione Fifita (outside back) Pukekohe
Piers Francis (first five) Bombay
Joseph Ikenasio (midfielder) Ardmore Marist
Richard Judd (halfback) Onewhero
Luteru Laulala (outside back) Ardmore Marist *
Orbyn Leger (midfielder) Karaka *
Fotu Lokotui (loose forward) Patumahoe *
Matiaha Martin (lock) Bombay *
Sione Molia (outside back) Karaka *
Augustine Pulu (halfback) Karaka
Toni Pulu (outside back) Bombay
Viliame Rarasea (lock) Ardmore Marist
Joe Reynolds (outside back) Pukekohe *
Cameron Skelton (lock) Pukekohe *
Sherwin Stowers (outside back) Ardmore Marist
Gafatasi Su'a (hooker) Pukekohe
Suliasi Taufalele (hooker) Ardmore Marist
Jordan Taufua (loose forward) Ardmore Marist
Viliami Taulani (loose forward) Patumahoe
Jonathan Taumateine (halfback) Ardmore Marist *
Kalolo Tuiloma (prop) Bombay *
Jimmy Tupou (lock) Patumahoe
Cardiff Vaega (midfielder) Karaka
Sam Vaka (midfielder) Bombay
Sonny Bill Williams (midfielder)

Five players who are contracted, but unavailable due to injury:
Glen Fisi'iahi (outside back) Bombay *
Sam Henwood (loose forward) Pukekohe
Nepo Laulala (prop) Ardmore Marist *
Pauliasi Manu (prop) Karaka
Maama Vaipulu (loose forward) Pukekohe

Players contracted for pre-season:
Harry Fitzsimons (loose forward) Karaka
Kali Hala (outside back) Karaka *
Lolohea Loco (outside back) Ardmore Marist

*New Steeler

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