Brought to you by Wanganui Rugby
Two men who were both teammates and former coaching staff together are looking forward to locking horns with their new charges in the Waitotara Valley on Saturday.
Having claimed the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield for the first time in its current incarnation last weekend, Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau will take their prize up the longest No Exit road in the country to meet surprise Tasman Tanning Premier table leaders Settlers Honey Ngamatapouri.
After the stumble of losing their opening game to Byford's Readimix Taihape on a conversion that shouldn't have missed, Kaierau secured the latest in a series of firsts for their young but talented playing group - the Shield win over Waverley Harvesting Border following on from last year's semifinal appearance, while they have now beaten every leading club in the past three years, albeit not consistently.
"I didn't even think about [the Shield]," said Kaierau coach Carl Gibson.
"It is a long way to go. Be nice to have it at the end of the year and get the bar tab.
"It was a good game of rugby too, the flow of that, I enjoyed watching it.
"We're building that leadership. Those young reps, you say to them, 'you've got that Heartland [Championship] experience, take the lead'.
"You can see, at training now, they're the ones running it."
While Kaierau have never lost in Waitotara and in fact suffered only one defeat to Ngamatapouri since the relatively new club was promoted from Senior in 2017, Gibson is wary of their two wins over Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist and, for the first time, McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu.
He puts a lot of that down to new coach Danny Tamehana, who has transferred from the Black Bull Liquor Pirates team that lost the Division 2 final to Ngamatapouri last year.
With the natural skills of the raft of Fijian flyers who make up the beekeeping country team's ranks, Gibson agreed you can beat Ngamatapouri by every game metric – territory, possession, control of the set piece – but still lose due to their ability to run and score from anywhere.
"We know that, and they will be [that way]. They have obviously tidied up some of their set piece and maybe their fitness has improved – that will be Danny.
"This Ngamatapouri team, they must be going all right."
As well as noted Wanganui representatives like Ethan Robinson, Cade Robinson, Josh Lane, Karl Pascoe, Matt Ashworth, and Joe Edwards, Kaierau are still assisted by the last of the Old Guard.
History has turned again as veteran Lasa Ulukuta, one of the players who departed for Pirates in the great 2013 migration, has returned home, although he has been dealing with injuries, while club legend Ace Malo stepped in at short notice for the Border game and once again turned the clock back five years.
Gibson now has enough depth that he can leave former Wanganui representatives on the bench, but that doesn't mean he favours rotation tactics.
"I won't be experimenting at all, I'll be putting our best team on the field."
Tamehana wasn't aware earlier this week that Kaierau were bringing the Shield, but agreed it was a nice incentive for his side to add to their Senior and Division 2 crowns.
Given Pirates issues with maintaining personnel, which has also been a past problem for Ngamatapouri, the new coach wanted commitment from the playing group and has received it - getting 20-odd to both Tuesday and Thursday night trainings.
"I'm loving it. For me, I'm close to my island family," said Tamehana.
"For us, it's building the culture, bringing the boys together, and it's rubbing off in their playing.
"More and more guys are wanting to join up. Everyone's been saying, it's the best its ever been."
Having coached against them, and beaten them in one regular season game last year,
Tamehana knew Ngamatapouri's backline strength was offset by their weaknesses in the forward pack – lacking the grinders who can do the unfashionable phase and set piece work.
He laid it out for them during the disjointed preseason – flair is good, but you need structure to get tries from 15m out, not 50m.
"That was the thing we brought up; before Covid, we actually had a couple of camps.
"We want to learn that side better, they're all in on learning that – play phases and phases before they try to score.
"There's still heaps to work on."
To that end, Tamehana is keeping Wanganui winger Samu Kubunavanua at No. 8, given he has plenty of other quality backs while the former Hurricanes Development XV player is very adept in the loose forwards.
Out wide the threat is clear – Ngamatapouri just need to run off big Timoci (Jim) Seruwalu, the powerful and intelligent midfielder who has won Meads and Lochore Cups with Wanganui and Horowhenua-Kapiti respectively.
Other try-scorers this campaign have been Samta Temesemuri and Mairangi Tamehana, while the big pickup is talented league convert Emitai Logadraudrau, who has transferred from Marist and already scored three tries in two games.
"Put him into space, he's off. They weren't easy tries too, he had to work for them," said Danny Tamehana.
In the other Premier games, there will be a rematch of last year's thrilling extra-time final at Cooks Gardens as Border make the long cross country trip to Memorial Park to meet Taihape, while Marist will want to keep pace with the top 4 sides when they host Ruapehu at Spriggens Park.
The draws are:
Premier (2.30pm kickoffs): Marist vs Ruapehu, Spriggens Park; Ngamatapouri vs Kaierau, Ngamatapouri; Taihape vs Border, Memorial Park.
Senior (1pm kickoffs): Celtic vs Buffalos, Spriggens Park; Pirates vs Border, Racecourse; Taihape vs Marton, Memorial Park No 1.
(2pm kickoffs): Counties vs Kaierau, McNab Domain; Utiku Old Boys vs Hunterville, Memorial Park No2.