As we were saying, before being so rudely interrupted by the biggest global pandemic in 102 years...

After months in the shadows of uncertainty, Wanganui rugby emerges into the light this Saturday with the belated kickoff of the six-team Tasman Tanning Premier division for 2020.

A competition draw format which has been remade three times since early March in the wake of the Covid-19 shutdown will now see 10 weeks of games, to be followed by a fortnight of playoffs, to find our local champion at Cooks Gardens on September 19 - just four days before the start of spring.

Following months of a non-contact training mandate, where the best they could do were kicks in the backyard and runs around their neighbourhood block, the players have been getting back up to speed in the past month with a handful of preseason games and training run-throughs.

Advertisement

Therefore, it remains to be seen how each club will respond to these unique circumstances and whether the final rankings of 2019 still apply for favouritism.

McCarthy's Transport Ruapehū have felt the pinch of the pandemic as they prepare for what is always their sternest away game of the season – facing Grand Hotel Challenge Shield owners Waverley Harvesting Border at Dallison Park.

The 2017-18 champions Ruapehū, under minted head coach Kim McNaught, had assembled two full squads in March this year with a determination to remedy the disappointment of the previous July - when their 11-1 campaign was derailed by Byford Readimix Taihape in the Rochfort Park semifinal, 22-16.

However, mandatory shutdown has somewhat depleted the ranks of the traditional powerhouse, who now once again will start the season without a Senior team backing up the Premier squad.

"You can't blame them. Covid kicked in, everything fell to bits," manager Mark Green said.

"A lot of the young ones took off out of town for work. Headed up to Taupō.

"Still struggling as we are, but hopefully still in that [competitive] boat.

"Once we get a game under our belts, we'll be able to let you know.

Advertisement

"Straight out of the gate, off to Waverley – always a daunting trip."

Nonetheless, any team with 2019 Premier player of the Year Jamie Hughes and Steelform Wanganui captain Campbell Hart simply cannot be dismissed.

They lead a young forward pack with the likes of fellow Wanganui rep Gabriel Hakaraia, who got nearly a full season of English rugby, while the likes of Hamish McKay and Christian Hawira can take their chance.

Others are not so sure, with the status of representative players like Roman Tutauha and Mitchell Millar to be confirmed, while Josh Fifita is available for now but has a job opportunity in Wellington, and fellow back Corey Carmichael is trying to balance footy and the needs of his business.

Changes are afoot up in South Taranaki as well, where local legend Cole Baldwin, the first man to play 100 games in the Heartland Championship, takes over coaching a Border squad smarting from losing last year's grand final 31-26 in extra time to Taihape.

Six players have departed to the likes of Manawatō and Taranaki, and in an attempt to address the previous issues of full training attendance, Baldwin has scrapped the traditional Tuesday/Thursday sessions in favour of an single extended Wednesday night run, lasting about two hours.

Advertisement

"We had to get out of the old mentality, times are changing," he said.

"At the moment, it's working for us. To entice some guys to come up, they just have to book out their Wednesday and Saturday.

"They've been doing a lot of hard work as well.

"We're a little bit stretched but hopefully I can turn it into something. The guys have good attitudes."

After expecting them all to have done some personal fitness work during the unplanned break, the squad's key players look fit and in the right headspace, including key men like skipper Lindsay Horrocks, mercurial Craig Clare, and radar-kicker Nick Harding.

"The guys know with no rep [season], they won't hold back, and throw themselves into this campaign," Baldwin said.

Advertisement

"We're not getting carried away, we're realistic. We haven't proven anything yet.

"Just trying to put out some decent performances each week."

Border were also fortunate that their four Island-based players had all made their way back from their family homes before the lockdown, most importantly the Tikoisolomone brothers in Wanganui reps Renato and 2019 Premier back of year Vereniki.

The clubs split their meetings last year, with Ruapehū winning the first encounter 27-15, before Border handed them their only defeat during the round-robin, 25-7.

In the other games, Taihape get their Premier title defence underway with a tough test, travelling to the Country Club to meet a Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau team looking to build on last year's return to the semifinals.

Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist make the journey up New Zealand's longest no exit road to meet Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri in the clash of fifth and sixth from 2019.

Advertisement

All games kick off at 2.30pm.

Saturday will also be the kickoff of a 2020 Senior club draw which has likewise gone through several changes in the past few months.

The latest adjustment was recombining the previously separated country and town clubs into a combined competition, which will consist of 11 teams and be very cut-throat with only two of them qualifying for finals day on September 19.

The draws:

Premier (2.30pm kickoffs):

Kaierau vs Taihape, Country Club; Ngamatapouri vs Border, Ngamatapouri; Border vs Ruapehū, Waverley.

Senior (1pm kickoffs): Kaierau vs Pirates, Country Club; Counties vs Celtic (2pm), McNab Domain; Border vs Buffalos, Waverley; Taihape vs Utiku Old Boys, Memorial Park; Marton vs Ratana, Marton; Hunterville bye.

Advertisement