The 2020 Baywide Premier Rugby season kicks off next month and will bring with it new challenges but also new opportunities. Sports reporter David Beck spoke to some of those involved about what to expect.
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Get out your crystal balls, it's time to start thinking about the Baywide rugby season and picking a winner will be as tough as ever. The beauty of the competition is; you could ask 10 different people who the favourites are and get 10 different answers.
The Premier season kicks off on April 4 and Bay of Plenty's involvement in the Global Rapid Rugby competition from March to June - teaming up with the China Rugby Football Association to form the China Lions - means some clubs are missing star players.
However, Bay of Plenty Rugby Union community rugby manager Pat Rae says while that presents a new challenge for the clubs, it also provides new opportunities for them and in the long run will help retain talent in the Bay of Plenty.
"There are challenges for clubs assembling squads with some quality players being signed to Global Rapid Rugby. However, there are opportunities now for our next up-and-coming players to step up and show some good performances because there's now another opportunity, on top of the original pathways, to play professional rugby.
"While our clubs now are feeling some pain around the whole Global Rapid Rugby taking their players away, in the long run, it will be beneficial for our local, homegrown talent to stay at home rather than seeking opportunities overseas."
At the start of the season, the top 12 clubs from 2019 make up the Premier Division while the bottom 12 will play in Division 1. Each team plays nine games before the top eight Premier sides form Premier 1, the bottom four join the top four from Division 1 in Premier 2 and the bottom eight remain in Division 1.
For the four sides who topped Premier 2 last year to start 2020 in the Premier competition, this is an opportunity to go against the Bay's top sides and prove they belong. Rae said the key to doing so was not the individual players lining up for those clubs but the culture being created.
"A club shouldn't be basing their entire squad around one or two representative players and I use Te Puna as the classic example; no Steamers players in their squad last year but they won everything you can possibly win.
"It's about providing somewhere for their community to assemble and be with like-minded people. If more of our clubs can have that mindset around their purpose then our clubs are in a really strong space to succeed regardless of how many players they lose," Rae said.
Last year's Premier 1 champions Te Puna will become the hunted this season as they aim to defend their title. However, new head coach Peri Marks echoed Rae in saying the team's focus was not so much on results but simply on "creating better men".
"If I'm being really honest, our approach doesn't change [with being defending champions]. Our goal this year is to make better men - there's enough challenges in life that are bigger than the game of rugby.
"For example, we have a first time father and he'll face challenges with that but it's really exciting for him and we'll support him with that, those are the things we want to celebrate. We have guys starting their own businesses so we're celebrating that.
"We just want our men to be role models in our community, for our club, for their families and for themselves first and foremost."
Marks said the team were aware they would be targetted this season but was confident the players would not let it affect them.
"We're just going about our business to be honest, preseason has had its challenges and we're probably in the same boat as everyone else with players involved in Rapid Rugby. That's challenging but great opportunities for our players to be involved in that professional environment.
"That's their goal, to play at that next level. That's our job, to get them in those positions and staying there. It's allowed other players to learn and take some leadership and responsibility within our training.
"Obviously, winning the title last year for the first time, in our 100th year, was an amazing achievement and there are expectations of us going back-to-back but we've identified our own key goals we'd like to achieve in the next few years. That includes having our first All Black, having more players at a higher representative level and that's a by-product of the environment we create."
One of the clubs looking to make their mark on the Premier division for the first time in the current format are Rotorua-based Marist St Michael's who were runner-up in Premier 2 last year.
Marist coach Mike Lewis admitted it would be a step-up for his side but one they would relish.
"Quite a few have tried before and failed - this our club's first foray into the top league so we're lacking a bit of experience in it. We've just worked hard all summer and preseason to give ourselves the best shot.
"For me, I've just been pushing keenness, we've got to be keen, we've got to stay in the fight all the time and not give up on anything. We have to be the most enthusiastic bunch we can find."
He said the opportunity to play Premier rugby was just reward for players who turned down other offers to stay at the club.
"It's what the group has wanted to do for the last few years, my brother and I have been coaching for about five years and it was our goal from the start so that's the sort of player we've attracted, who have stayed and hung around because they want to get there as well.
"Quite a few in the last couple of years, when we haven't been up there, have talked about wanting to go to other clubs to play Premier rugby and we sort of asked them politely to stay and battle it out with us because we want to get there too.
"That's a bit of a reward for the boys who have stuck it out with us for the last few years, not they get to find out what it's like to play Premier footy but for their club which is pretty neat."
This weekend, preseason local rounds are being held for Rotorua and Whakatāne clubs. Lewis said it was a valuable opportunity for players to develop their match fitness and for coaches to see where they are at in their preparation.
"You need the preseason games, to see the planning and structures and whether what you've done in training is going to work. We're in Reporoa this weekend which is always a bit of fun to head out there.
"For us, we're concentrating on Baywide and putting our best foot forward there. In these games we just want to see them giving what we've done at training a crack. It can be easy to dismiss some of the harder things we've worked on and go back to what you've done in the past. We're really just asking that they stick to the plans and structures even if they're a bit clunky for now," Lewis said.
Baywide Premier Rugby format at a glance:
Round 1: Premier, Premier Development and Division 1
- The prerequisite for entry into the Premier Baywide 1st and 2nd rounds is the
requirement to field a Premier Baywide Development team throughout the
- The competition will start on April 4 and will comprise nine games.
- 12 teams ranked 1-12 split into two pools of six.
- Rankings are based on 2019 seedings.
- The first six games are crossovers against teams from the opposite pool.
- The final three games are against teams from within their pool
Round 2: Premier 1, Premier 2 and Division 1
- In all grades the competition points table will start from zero.
- The competition format for second round will be 8:8:8.
- One section of eight Premier 1 teams ranked 1-8 (development team required).
- One section of eight Premier 2 teams ranked 9-16 (development team required).
- One section of eight Division 1 teams ranked 17-24 (No development team required).
Rotorua Local Round
Saturday, March 14, all 2.30pm kickoff
Whakarewa v Rotoiti at Puarenga Park
Reporoa v Marist St Michael's at Reporoa Rugby Club
Murupara v Waikite at Ngatimanawa Park
Kahukura v Ngongotahā at Kuirau Park
Whakatāne Local Round
Saturday, March 14
1pm: Ōpōtiki v Ruatoki at Princess Street Reserve
2pm: Matata v Galatea/Waiohau at Richmond Park
2pm: Paroa v Whakatāne Marist at Lawson Park
2pm: Waimana v Edgecumbe at Waimana Domain