Rugby: North Harbour primed for Wellington challenge

By Campbell Burnes

North Harbour's Chris Vui played for the Blues in 2015 but doesn't have a Super Rugby contract secured for next season. Photo / Jason Dorday- New Zealand Herald
North Harbour's Chris Vui played for the Blues in 2015 but doesn't have a Super Rugby contract secured for next season. Photo / Jason Dorday- New Zealand Herald

Chris Vui is excited about the prospect of his first tour with Manu Samoa next month, but uppermost in his mind is unfinished Mitre 10 Cup Championship business tomorrow afternoon.

The 23-year-old has led from the front for Harbour in 2016, just his second season of provincial football, having assumed the captaincy as James Parsons has battled neck/concussion issues. Vui has won his lineouts, either at lock or blindside flanker, and made his tackles. His peers recognise that, and on Wednesday he took the Supporters' Club player of the year and the Players' player of the year at the union's annual awards night. Now, it seems, so do Samoa. They have come calling before, but the timing was right now.

"My parents are born in Samoa and I've never really seen myself as an All Black (one day). They've approached me a couple of times and I've held off, but this time it was a good opportunity not to say no," says the Massey club man.

Samoa have assembled a useful looking squad for their European tour, and will play tests against France, Georgia and Canada. Vui believes he is seen as a lock who can cover loose forward.

Curiously, given his form for Harbour and the fact he played for the Blues (in 2015) before he had played for his union, Vui has no Super Rugby deal for 2017.

"Nothing is set at this stage, so that made it easier to showcase my talents somewhere else."

But he is signed for Harbour in 2017.

"I really want to do the job and get this Championship. If we do that, who knows what we can do next year?"

Indeed, Harbour's rate of improvement has been exponential and now they sit on the cusp of their first final of any kind since the infamous 1994 'Battle of Onewa'.

Standing in their way are the Wellington Lions, a bogey team whom they have not lowered since 2006, the last year Harbour contested the playoffs. Just last month they were pipped 21-17 in the capital, thanks to the unerring boot of Jackson Garden-Bachop, who slotted seven penalties to Harbour's two tries.

The difference now is that Harbour are playing much better rugby, retaining the ball and building pressure, while the Lions, who have been wildly inconsistent, have dropped their last three on the bounce, including two 50-point hidings.

"We need to take their ball runners out (read: Vaea Fifita) and match their physicality. Last time it felt like we did all the attacking and Dd up pretty well, but Garden-Bachop scored all the points. We just need to keep our discipline," says Vui, who can compare Manu Samoa notes with Wellington flanker Greg Foe after the match.

Vui will suit up at lock, with Brandon Nansen adding impact off the bench, in a settled Harbour squad, while prop Jody Allen has, for the second time, been recalled from Heartland Championship duty with Poverty Bay as George Tu'inukuafe and Hani Fatai were both injured in last Sunday's 44-28 win over Northland, which sealed their semifinals berth.

Harbour coach Steve Jackson is happy to adopt the underdog status, but close observers will know a Harbour victory will be no surprise tomorrow.

"Media will be giving us no chance. People are already talking about a Wellington v Otago final. We use that as a bit of motivation. There's nothing to lose, whereas there is a bit of pressure on Wellington to perform," says Jackson.

"Their pack is full of Super Rugby players and a few exciting young backs. We've trained for a bit of a war."

Wellington's squad has been bolstered with the return of fullback Jason Woodward and centre Matt Proctor from injury.

The Championship final will be played next Friday night, either in Dunedin, if Otago beat Bay of Plenty tonight, Wellington or Albany.

* Live commentary of this match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 2.35pm on Saturday.

Wellington: Jason Woodward, Joe Hill, Matt Proctor, Shaun Treeby, Wes Goosen, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Tomasi Palu, Hoani Matenga, Brad Shields (c), Vaea Fifita, Sam Lousi, Mark Reddish, Chris Baumann, Leni Apisai, Reggie Goodes; Reserves: Asafo Aumua, Vince Sakaria, Alex Fidow, James Blackwell, Greg Foe, Sheridan Rangihuna, Mike Lealava'a, Peter Umaga-Jensen

- NZ Herald

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