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There are dead certainties, surprise packages, young bolters and the hard luck stories, but the Steelform Whanganui selectors have settled on the group of men they hope can reclaim the Meads Cup.
There were 31 players invited to muster for Tuesday night's first training at the Kaierau Country Club, slightly more than the planned 26 for the Bunnings Heartland Championship campaign, and including two young apprentice players.
Preparing to face Taranaki Development XV in Hawera tomorrow, Whanganui will carry extra numbers through their three-game preseason, in part because of a few injury concerns with some of their veterans.
Incumbent captain Campbell Hart has a shoulder niggle coming out of last Saturday's Town vs Country trial, while flanker Jamie Hughes will not play for at least two weeks.
Midfielder Josaia Bogileka is having his hurt back muscle assessed, as it is never good to run into both props Hadlee Hay-Horton and Gabriel Hakaraia at the same time in a trial match.
"Not when two big boys bowl you over," Whanganui coach Jason Caskey said.
Speaking of props, there has been some open territory after the departure of both Wiremu Cottrell and Kamipeli Latu in 2021.
Hay-Horton and Hakaraia have been incumbents from 2020, while Caskey & Co have brought back veteran Viki Tofa and included Gordon Coogan, a product of Utiku Old Boys in WRFU Senior competition.
"Kimmy [Kim McNaught – Country coach] likes the look him, he's a good-sized chunk of a lad," Caskey said of Coogan.
Joining them for his apprenticeship is Keightley Watson. Having just won the MRU Colts title with Metro, the multiple-time international judo champion is an outstanding athlete who is still picking up the fundamentals of front row work.
"[For] young guys, probably haven't played a lot of rugby in recent years, it's just nailing down those core roles," Caskey said.
"Scrummaging especially, you can't do too much of that on paper."
Tofa is not the only comeback kid. Former skipper Roman Tutauha is returning after his 2020 sabbatical, while flanker Kieran Hussey is rewarded for a strong club campaign, back for the first time since 2015.
"He's stepped up a notch or two since a few years ago – his physicality, he's brought a bit extra to his game," Caskey said.
The inclusion of two young Kaierau players meant places could not be found for 2020 hooker Jack Yarrall and lock Jack Hodges.
"Jack Yarrall was close, we just thought with Dylan [Gallien] and Roman coming back, they have a little bit of experience and the set piece accuracy – the throwing," Caskey said.
"Jack van Bussel's been pretty accurate as well, and he can obviously prop as well.
"At this stage, he's in that [third hooker] spot, but got the opportunity to play themselves into that [game day] spot."
Like van Bussel, Josefa Rokotakala came on so strongly in 2021 that he supplanted 2020 Whanganui rep Matt Ashworth at club level, and now Hodges in the Heartland group.
"We thought Josefa is a big younger, trying to bring a few boys through that can cope with the reins in coming years."
The backline contains most of the 2020 incumbents, with the big news that at age 36, the former Highlander Craig Clare will suit up for one more representative campaign.
Clare had been on the fence earlier in the season about whether he wanted to continue with first-class rugby, however, his form leading Border to back-to-back Premier titles warranted selection.
"He's been playing some bloody good club rugby," Caskey said.
With Hart likely not playing this weekend, the captaincy could fall to Clare or fellow playmaker Dane Whale, the latter having taken the role in early 2018.
Tutauha has the most first-class captaincy experience, but Caskey said it was likely that Gallien would maintain his incumbency as the No1 rake.
Elsewhere in the backs, returning from Manawatu is 2016 and 2018 Whanganui representative Kameli Kuruyabaki, while, with star winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone having departed for Taranaki, joining the squad are recent Ngamatapouri acquisition Joeli Rauca, and returning from Otago is former City College alumnus Peceli Malanicagi.
Following in the footsteps of his legendary father Ace Malo, who only played his last game for Whanganui four years ago, teenager Ezra Malo will be the apprentice back.
Caskey is expecting a strong Taranaki Development XV, who Whanganui have played twice at Hawera's Hicks Park in recent years – winning 43-12 in 2016 and losing 17-5 in 2019.
"I'll say they'll be pretty reasonable, they always are. The Bulls are playing on Friday."
Taranaki will be defending the Jones Brothers Shield, which is in memory of hooker Bevan, halfback Graeme and first-five Peter, who all represented Whanganui.
Introduced in 1981, the shield was originally contested on Queen's Birthday weekends between the Taranaki NPC side and Whanganui – a fixture which died away in the 1990s with the widening gap between professional and amateur unions.
The TRFU granted permission for their Development XV to defend the shield in 2016, with Whanganui winning it for only the fourth time, and the first since 1985.
A stronger Development XV regained the title on a windy day at Hicks Park three years later.
The extended Heartland squad is:
Forwards – Hadlee Hay Horton (Taihape); Viki Tofa (Marist); Gabriel Hakaraia (Ruapehu); Gordon Coogan (Utiku); Dylan Gallien (Taihape); Roman Tutauha (Ruapehu); Jack van Bussel (Kaierau); Josh Lane (Kaierau); Peter-Travis Hay-Horton (Taihape); Matt Brown (Taihape); Jamie Hughes (Ruapehu); Campbell Hart (Ruapehu); Semi Vodosese (Border); Josefa Rokotakala (Kaierau); Ben Whale (Taihape); Cade Robinson (Kaierau); Kieran Hussey (Border).
Backs – Lindsay Horrocks (Border); Tyler Rogers-Holden (Taihape); Cameron Davies (Kaierau); Dane Whale (Taihape); Craig Clare (Border); Ethan Robinson (Kaierau); Timoci Seruwalu (Ngamatapouri); Josaia Bogileka (Marist); Kameli Kuruyabaki (Manawatu); Joeli Rauca (Ngamatapouri); Peceli Malanicagi (Otago); Alekesio Vakarorogo (Border).
Apprentice players – Forwards: Keightley Watson (Metro); Backs: Ezra Malo (Kaierau).