Rugby

Te Puke Sports start the defence of the Baywide premier rugby title with a bit of deja vu on Saturday.

The Pirates won the title with a 27-13 victory over Te Puna.

The two sides will meet again in the opening round of the 2019 competition - this time at Te Puna's home, Maramatanga Park.

Advertisement

Title winning player coach Matt Wallis is again at the helm at Murray Salt Stadium this year, with John Corbett as co-coach.

''It's a nice little one to start with,'' says Wallis of the final rematch. ''It gives us a look at where we are at. Te Puna will be one of the teams to beat this year - they've got good numbers by the sound of it and a good squad - it will be a good test for us.''

His focus will be on improving as the season progresses.

''You can't be playing your best footie in April. As long as you are picking up wins along the way, you want to be playing your best footie rolling into June, July.

The second of two pre season games saw a bit win over Hamilton's Fraser Tech.

''I think we were a bit more prepared - we had first half and second half teams and were organised.''

The other pre-season game was a win over Arataki.

''They had a lot of players away but it was a good hit out.''

Advertisement

The results of the games have little meaning.

''It's just a good chance to have a look at guys and have a bit of game time yourself.''

Pre-season training began in the second week of January with conditioning sessions.

''Not everyone turns up, it's just an optional thing if you want to come along. A lot of guys are training in squads or by themselves and you don't really want the guys to get sick of rugby before it starts."

Last weekend was a weekend off.

''It was a chance for them to get away with their families or go out and have a good time, because after that its 16, 18 20 weeks - it's a long slog.''

The bulk of last year's title winning squad will be back in Pirates' colours. Mid-field back Carlos Basham has moved to Australia to play club rugby, winger Curtis Dean will play league in Rotorua in 2019 while lock Lars Morrice is playing in Scotland.

On the plus side of the ledger, Dan Hollinshead has returned from a stint playing in Japan and Steamers 2018 Rookie of the Year Kane Le'aupepe has been released from Super Rugby duties with the Chiefs and Crusaders and has been back on the Te Puke training paddock.

Also back are New Zealand under 20 hopefuls Cole Forbes and Lalomilo Lalomilo, although success in that squad could limit their appearances at club level.

One of the tricks, says Wallis, is adapting to the new season with all teams likely to raise their game when they play the current champions.

''We've become the hunted,'' he says. ''Obviously there's changes you make from the year before so teams don't see you as predictable.''

After playing every game last season, Wallis plans to pull on one of the props jerseys again this year.

''We've got guys who need to play as well, but I'm still keen to contribute - although I don't know if it will be as much as last year.

''I don't think I'll be playing every game, I don't think I can handle it, but I'm definitely keen to get in amongst it.''

The format of the competition has changed slightly. The premier division still has 12 teams, but each team will play just 10 games before the top 8 begin the second phase of the competition in May. Te Puke won't meet Arataki or Whakarewarewa.

''The goal at this stage is just to qualify for the top eight - if we [do that] it makes us safe for next year, so that's our goal at this stage.

''But we'll have to play some good footie, because every team's quite sharp in that qualifying round and you only play 10 games so you've got to pick up the wins.''

Success there will be the springboard to mount a title defence.

''Obliviously there are bigger goals, but if you look too far ahead you might fall over.''

It's a cliche, but ahead of the first round, every team is equal.

''To be honest, it's 2019 now, it's a completely different year. Things change in club rugby as you've seen. One team can be up and one team can be down year to year and it's no different for us. We've got to get our squad going and bring the new guys in and see how they go.

''But we are pretty lucky - we've got most of the squad back from last year.''

Wallis says it is good to see Rangiuru in the premier division to start the season.

''It's always good to play those guys and it's good to have them back in the premier competition. They have some good guys in there leading the way."

The two Te Puke sides play one another at Centennial Park on May 18, while Rangiuru open their season with a visit to Greerton Marist on Saturday.