Brought to you by Whanganui Rugby
It will be compact but still one of the most intense Bunnings Heartland Championship campaigns on record as Steelform Whanganui's belated campaign kicks off against Poverty Bay tomorrow.
Having lost the impetus from their physical preseason matches against the NPC union development sides, it was back to square one for coach Jason Caskey's squad when the move to level 2 allowed them to resume training – adding an extra Saturday session to their usual Tuesday-Thursday hit-outs.
"Had a couple last week, so trying to play a little bit of catch-up," Caskey said.
The squad kept their fitness up during the untimely four-week break with a road-work competition on their Butcher's Boys online page – trying to beat each other for speed and total kilometres.
"They all did a reasonable amount of running. But when they came back Thursday last week, you saw the handling skills, the basics [suffered], with dropped ball – people hadn't had a ball in their hand in a month."
If there was one saving grace, Caskey has an injury-free line-up to consider – captain Campbell Hart and fellow loose forward Jamie Hughes, who missed preseason, are now back to 100 per cent.
"It didn't help that they were just looking forward to getting game time under their belt, and it was 3-4 weeks' more [wait]."
Because level 4 lockdown started the week of the planned kickoff for the competition, the draw has been redone where the four games scheduled over that timeframe have now been moved to the end of the competition for October-November.
It was also decided, for the first time since Heartland's introduction in 2006, to do away with semifinals – the top two teams after the regular eight games will qualify for the Meads Cup final, while the third and fourth-placed sides will play for the Lochore Cup.
Of Whanganui's last four trips to the Meads final – 2015-17 and 2019 – three of them came via qualifying in third or fourth and then winning away semifinals.
Caskey is well aware this campaign will be more like a football league table – every game will count towards getting out at the head of the pack and staying there, with a late run of form not being enough.
"Just got to tick boxes and we've got to set targets and address them, week by week.
"If you lose two [games], you're going to struggle to make that [Meads final].
"Every team gets beaten a couple of times. You've got to hope it's like that through the comp."
Traditionally, the last round-robin games are almost like quarterfinals, as teams fight to get into either the Meads or Lochore Cup playing groups.
This time, those battles will start more than a month out – Caskey sees positives in Whanganui now playing the usual semifinal-calibre unions like South Canterbury, 2019 champions North Otago, and 2018 champions Thames Valley in their past three games.
"When you get a chance to put a dent into them, take points off them, it's good.
"It's hard when you don't play a team and they're a point ahead of you and you can't do anything – they get up on bonus points.
"Two years ago we had to win five in a row to give ourselves a chance, and the boys ticked the boxes and got up for the challenge."
But Caskey can't look too far ahead as this weekend's opponent Poverty Bay, originally the fifth game but now the first, can be truly unpredictable.
The two sides played the final 2020 game between Heartland unions at Napier's McLean Park last October and it proved a classic – Whanganui blew out to 41-12 until the Gisborne union came roaring back, finishing just short at 41-38.
It sums up Poverty Bay's wide-open attack style – they fashioned a 2-2 record in 2020, scoring 140 points and conceding 134.
"They're always an extremely dangerous team, it's one team you never take lightly," said Caskey.
Key men from 2020 still in the squad include veteran first five Kelvin Smith, determined outside backs Tione Hubbard and Andrew Tauatevalu - and look out for monster-sized prop Jarryd Broughton off the bench.
For Whanganui, Caskey is pleased with how comfortably Te Rangatira Waitokia has slotted back into the side he last played for as a teenager in 2016, now showing his experience from dozens of professional-level games.
"Marked difference from the Te from now, to what was last time.
Flyhalf Dane Whale will play his 50th first-class game for the province, having debuted in 2014 and been part of multiple Meads Cup wins, while captaining the side on a handful of occasions.
"Been an outstanding team man for us for quite a few years now. Well deserved," said Caskey.
The game is closed to the public under level 2, but the match will be live-streamed online.