The Steelform Wanganui selectors have settled on a wider group of 34 players for the preseason away trip to Napier to play an imposing Hawke's Bay Saracens on Saturday — with emphasis on the word 'Wanganui'.
High on the agenda for coach Jason Caskey and his staff will be welding the side into a unified force that represents the whole region, getting past the tribalism which was brought out by a very competitive club rugby season.
The Facebook announcement of the squad of 34 players, with four to be removed after this weekend, was met with some online derision from certain northern quarters over the inclusion of only four members of the Division 1 champion Taihape team — Wiremu Cottrell, Dylan Gallien, Dane Whale and Tyler Rogers-Holden — all incumbents from 2018.
Taihape came from distant fourth to win the championship after extra time in the final at Cooks Gardens against Border, who have 12 players in the current Wanganui group.
The announcement came with the statement that selection was not only based on club form, but also "who turns up and does the work in the [WRFU] fitness sessions during the club season", with the core of the squad "picked from those that have fronted".
"You get frustrated at people making un-informed comments from clubs," said Caskey regarding the comments.
"For the long run, we have 2-3 things through the year, and if they don't turn up to it, we won't pick them.
"Most of the public got no idea — they just see a team [selected].
"Taihape did win the final and they played well, and there's guys in their group we wanted, but for their own reasons, they made themselves unavailable.
"Credit to them [for the title] as well, but you look at the form over the season and what work's been done [with us]."
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Once upon a time at Cooks Gardens....
The team goes into a training camp at Cooks Gardens tomorrow morning and will need to be on the same page for the long trip to Napier to face the imposing Saracens.
Since 2015, Wanganui have played and beaten the development squad of the Hawke's Bay union in preseason, until last year when a string of costly penalties in the final quarter saw them lose 34-19 at Spriggens Park.
Hawke's Bay have began to reinvest strongly in their player depth below the Magpies team in the Mitre 10 Cup, as evidenced so far this year by Saracens hammering the full Horowhenua-Kapiti team in Levin 64-7, and then destroying King Country 90-12 in Napier last Saturday.
Utility back Johnny Ika got five tries, reserve winger Trent Hape got four, while five other players dotted down and two of them added ten conversions between them.
"They've been pretty strong, it's not going to be 'turn up and have a run'. But you want to find out where we are at," said Caskey.
The current Wanganui team has added back the successful players loaned to Whanganui Maori in their win over Taranaki Maori last Saturday, while settling on an overall more experienced group from the team that lost to the Taranaki Development XV.
There are still a couple of bolters, as hooker/loose forward Joseph Edwards gets a look, while the likes of young forwards like Josh Lane and Chris Breuer continue their progression.
"[It's guys] being prepared to front and do a bit of work," said Caskey.
"Joe's always had the talent, it's just transferring it to the work ethic," remembering a young man who in seasons past did not come to the aforementioned fitness, sessions, but got a pep talk this year.
Caskey also saw enough from import fullback Shai Wiperi in Hawera last weekend, while recalling his previous work in Manawatu development squads and his 2016 loan season with Horowhenua Kapiti.
"Got a lot of attacking ability, quick on his feet."
Having been a second tier Wanganui player for the past few seasons, midfielder Troy Brown still remains in the top group after strong form through the year.
On the walking wounded list, Gallien will need at least one more week for his leg injury, which could leave the hooker stocks a little depleted as incumbent captain Roman Tutauha has been unwell with an infection.
Flanker Angus Middleton will train, but it will be up to the physio if his shoulder problems leave him right to play this weekend.
It will be a large group travelling to Napier as the current Wanganui Development squad will also be going over for a match against the Hawke's Bay Under 19s.
There were 25 players named this week to train under new coach Kim McNaught, including members of the 2018 Wanganui Heartland squad in Jack Yarrall, Jamie Hughes, Peter Travis Hay-Horton, Viki Tofa and Shandon Scott.
Both games kickoff at 1pm.
Steelform Wanganui extended squad
Forwards: Chris Breuer, Wiremu Cottrell, Joseph Edwards, Dylan Gallien, Gabriel Hakaraia, Campbell Hart, Jack Hodges, Bryn Hudson, Kieran Hussey, Samu Kubunavanua, Josh Lane, Kamipeli Latu, Sam Madams, Angus Middleton, Raymond Salu, Ranato Tikoisolomone, Roman Tutauha, Apprentices: Jason Myers, Josefa Rokotakala.
Backs: Josiaia Bogileka, Troy Brown, Craig Clare, Kahl Elers-Green, Nick Harding, Lindsay Horrocks, Penijamini Nabainivalu, Karl Pascoe, Ethan Robinson, Tyler Rogers-Holden, Tom Symes, Vereniki Tikoisolomone, Dane Whale, Shai Wiperi.
Apprentice: Cameron Davies.
Wanganui Development squad
Anaru Haerewa, Brad Graham, Bradley O'Leary, CJ Stowers, Cyrus Paringatai, Emitai Logadraudrau, Fa'afetai Siona, Hadlee Hay-Horton, Jack Yarrall, James Barrett, Jamie Hughes, Matt Brown, Matthew Ashworth, Mitchell Millar, Pene Vui, Peter Travis Hay-Horton, Rory Gudsell, Royce Trow, Sefo Bourke, Shandon Scott, Sheldon Pakinga-Manhire, Te Kepa Grindlay, Te Uhi Hakaraia, Tipene Harrison, Viki Tofa.