A more secure start to the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship for a chance to give youngsters their shot and veterans a breather will be on the agenda for Steelform Wanganui's head coach Jason Caskey after his reappointment for another campaign.
Having completed his latest two-year contract this year, the Wanganui Rugby Football Union announced Thursday that Caskey will remain in the job for the 2020 Heartland season.
WRFU Chairman Jeff Phillips said after taking Wanganui to a sixth Meads Cup final appearence, Caskey indicated his desire to remain in the job.
The WRFU board agreed by majority vote to retain their most successful Heartland coach, this time on a 12-month contract.
"After the retirement in recent years of key senior players, Jason and his coaching team have worked on rebuilding and developing more depth in our Heartland squad," said the press release.
Previously, the coaching role would be announced for two years, although with the option for the board to review the appointment after one, based on results.
As he will have been in the position for seven straight seasons of his second coaching term after next year's campaign, Caskey said the one-year option allowed both himself and the WRFU to consider the future at that point.
"Twelve months at the moment, with the option of going in for another one. We'll have a look at it at the end."
Wanganui would like to go one-game better by winning the Meads Cup, after their poor start to 2019 with three straight losses was followed by winning six virtual sudden-death games to make the final with North Otago in Oamaru.
The team could have made history at that point by becoming the first side in 14 seasons of the competition to win the title after such a poor start, but the hard run took its toll – with North Otago winning their third Meads Cup with a comfortable 33-19 victory.
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Wanganui had a disjointed start to the campaign, losing to Wairarapa Bush before anyone knew how strong the Masterton team would be – making the Meads semifinals – and were then missing four NZ Heartland XV players away playing Samoa at Eden Park when they were beaten by defending champions Thames Valley.
A one-point loss away to Buller after a late sideline kick by James Lash meant Wanganui were languishing in 11th place, but would win their next five games with bonus points to squeeze into fourth, before upsetting Thames Valley at home in a hard semifinal to make it to Oamaru.
"It was there, we had a good preseason – Saracens we played well and Wellington Development too, played well in the conditions," said Caskey.
"But losing those four guys in the crunch game didn't help. We put ourselves under pressure.
"The first three games, you want to get that right, we were hoping we could be in that situation to give more of the young guys an opportunity.
"Resting guys who are longer in the tooth.
"Unfortunately, dropping the three games, you just haven't got the leeway.
"[In Oamaru] guys were sore, tired, still excited for the final, but it's hard to get back up."
Caskey had wanted to give a chance to apprentice players like young loose forwards Jason Myers and Josefa Rokotakala, while halfback Cameron Davies had brief chances to cameo with his debut off the bench.
The likes of veterans Penijamini Nabainivalu and Craig Clare also had to play more game time, with Clare lost for the season in September after tearing his pectoral muscle.
Clare had potentially been going to retire after this campaign if Wanganui regained the Meads Cup, and Caskey said while it will depend on how he feels after club rugby next year, the veteran is likely to commit to one more go around.
The big jewel in the crown was the emergence of Campbell Hart as an excellent captain – having a good rapport with both younger and older players in the squad – while leading from the front as he has been nominted for Heartland Player of the Year at the ASB Rugby Awards on Thursday.
In their press release, the WRFU praised Caskey's goal of developing players as being key facet in improving the strength of the local club competition, as youngsters take their skills back to their home bases in the following season, while others move in from outside the region to join this scene.
The only detriment to this is several players getting injured in ultra-competitive club matches before the Heartland season begins, as for the last couple of seasons, Caskey has lost good players for chunks of the representative campaign.
"You want a good club competition, but you've got to wear that," he said.
"Just hope it's on the right side of the numbers."
Having served as head coach, after a term as assistant, in 2011-12 and then again in 2014-19, Caskey's Wanganui teams have won the Meads Cup four times (2011, 2015-17), come runnerup twice (2012, 2019), and claimed the 2014 Lochore Cup.
In those eight seasons, Wanganui have won 61 games, drawn one and lost 17.