Rugby: Decimated Suburbs looking short-term

By Campbell Burnes

Auckland's Gallaher Shield premier club champions have lost most of their pack from 2016. Photo / Getty.
Auckland's Gallaher Shield premier club champions have lost most of their pack from 2016. Photo / Getty.

Retention is generally not too much of an issue after winning a championship.

But such is the transient nature of players these days, Auckland's Gallaher Shield premier club champions Suburbs have lost most of their pack from 2016.

Their campaign starts tomorrow hosting Papatoetoe in what will again be a cut-throat first round of action in which six competitive sides from Pool A are gunning for just four spots to make it through to the top eight.

Coach Charlie McAlister has gained two promising props fresh out of the champions MAGS First XV - Michael Palmer and NZ Under 20s tighthead Ezekiel Lindenmuth - while former Southland Stags hooker Dillan Halaholo has come home. But otherwise, only locks Trope Yandall and the seven foot Englishman Dean Williams are back from the pack that played so well in 2016.

"We've worked really hard the last 4-5 months to find a pack that will be competitive," says McAlister.

A full strength backline will be hard to peg, with first and captain Carl Perry back as general and kicker.

Perry, though, will miss the second and third games as he will be in Japan with the MAGS First XV as they try to annex the Sanix title. Out wide, watch for the versatile Seb Visinia, fresh out of Kelston BHS, who can play in several positions, including wing, plus his brother Lolagi Visinia, who has bounced back from the disappointment of missing Blues selection to look sharp.

He played strongly at centre last weekend when Suburbs beat Ponsonby 31-15 to win their first Waka Nathan Challenge Cup for pre-season competition. Wing/centre Caleb Clarke follows his father Eroni and grandfather into the Suburbs ranks, but he will soon be lost to the New Zealand Under 20s.

TJ Vaega and Charles Napa'a have left the club, but there is a healthy sprinkling of MAGS and Kelston BHS talent, as there often is at Suburbs.

A good acquisition is Auckland prop Isi Tu'ungafasi, who transfers from Grammar TEC and has brought along two of his many brothers, Victor and Leka.

McAlister would love to see Suburbs be the first side to win back to back Gallaher Shield since Ponsonby claimed the last of their eight straight in 2011, but he is not making the mistake of getting ahead of himself.

"I got burnt in my first season here (2015). I was taking advice from everyone, but I focused on the second round and we didn't even make it to the second round. All the eggs are now going in the first round basket," he says.

And that first round in Pool B will be pressure-packed, to say the least. Eden, College Rifles, Manukau, Waitemata, Suburbs and Papatoetoe all have valid claims to advance.

Rifles are the holders of the Alan McEvoy Memorial Trophy and Sir Fred Allen Challenge Cup. But six into four does not go. Papatoetoe will offer Suburbs a physical test at their Shadbolt Park home tomorrow. Eden won the pre-season Pollard Cup and the Auckland and national club sevens title, and seem to have recruited well, so they will push hard for the top eight. Experienced coach Brent Semmons is guiding their forwards.

Former Thames Valley coach Hayden Roe takes the reins at Manukau.

Five into four does not go in Pool B, where one of Grammar TEC, Pakuranga, Ponsonby, University and Marist will dip out. Varsity have a new head coach in former Scotland international Cam Mather, while former Manu Samoa halfback Brenton Helleur has come out of retirement.

Waisake Sotutu is the new Marist director of rugby and will be hoping his old club retain the Dave Grace Memorial Trophy at the home of Varsity tomorrow.

There will be interest in the union's new flagship Colts grade, the Under 20s, which supersedes the once highly competitive Under 21 grade.

All premier games are subject to the new blue card scheme, and will kick off at 2.45pm.

- NZ Herald

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