Tuesday, 8 August 2017
Port Taranaki Bulls a mix of experience and youth
The return of two experienced leaders and the inclusion of several impressive club players has Port Taranaki Bulls coach Colin Cooper eyeing another Mitre 10 Cup playoffs appearance when the competition kicks off this month.
Cooper and assistant coach Willie Rickards announced their 32-man squad for the national provincial championship today, with the return of Charlie Ngatai and Angus Ta’avao the highlights of a side that is full of Super Rugby experience and youthful potential.
Chiefs midfielder Ngatai returns to the squad after missing the entire 2016 Mitre 10 Cup and a large part of the Super Rugby season because of concussion issues, while prop Ta’avao is back in amber and black after playing Super Rugby with the Waratahs in Australia. Both players were key members of the Port Taranaki Bulls’ title victory in 2014.
Ngatai has been named as co-captain with lock Leighton Price, who took charge of the team in Saturday’s pre-season win against Bay of Plenty in Te Awamatu.
“Charlie is smart and tactically one of the best players I’ve ever worked with,” Cooper said. “He’s recovered really well and is already on the All Blacks’ radar again, proving how highly he is regarded. With a lot of younger players in the squad, his leadership will be very important.”
Ta’avao has signed a two-year contract with Taranaki and will provide plenty of experience in a forward group that includes eight new players.
“We’re excited to have Angus back. He really connected with Taranaki when he was here and he wanted to come back. He’s a great team man and another leader in the squad,” Cooper said.
With several regular first-team players suffering season-ending injuries, particularly among the loose forwards, Cooper has backed well-performed club players and Taranaki Rugby Academy players to step up.
In the loose forwards, Spotswood United’s Pita-Gus Sowakula’s high workrate, lineout skill and ability to play either No 8 or blindside flanker has been acknowledged, while talented youngster Tom Florence, who has been studying and playing club rugby in the Waikato while training at the Chiefs base, has been picked with an eye to the future.
Finn Hoeata, who missed the club season because of a leg injury, has “untapped potential”, mobility and ball skills, and can play at No 6 or lock, while Tukapa flanker Adrian Wyrill’s continued hard work and commitment has been rewarded with selection.
“Adrian has been the best No 7 in club rugby this season and deservedly gets his chance after persevering and showing his commitment to Taranaki,” Cooper said.
“His tactical understanding of the game and his ability to create turnover ball is outstanding.”
The Chiefs’ Lachlan Boshier and the Hurricanes’ Toa Halafihi complete the loose forwards, with ex-Waikato lock-loose forward Brad Tucker, and Stratford-Eltham’s Donald Maaka providing cover. Maaka, a Chiefs development player, who has been named one of three hookers in the squad, is a converted loose forward.
Port Taranaki Bulls 2016 player of the year, prop Mitchell Graham, is back training after breaking his leg in February, and will be the cornerstone of the front row. He will have plenty of experience around him in the form of Ta’avao, Sione Lea, Reuben O’Neill, Mike Kainga, and Hurricanes hooker Ricky Riccitelli, who returns home to Taranaki after playing for Hawke’s Bay.
Spotswood United prop Jared Profitt will get the chance to add to his six Port Taranaki Bulls caps, while fellow Spotswood United prop Asaeli Sorovaki is described by Cooper as the best tighthead in club rugby.
Co-captain Price, who was called into the Blues this season, will link up with the experienced Leon Power in the middle row, alongside Tucker and Hoeata.
“We have a hard-working and competitive pack, and although we lack experience in the loose forwards we have replaced it with youth and excitement,” Cooper said. “We have a strong front five, and a particularly experienced front row.”
The backline is settled and boasts strength, speed, skills and Super Rugby experience throughout.
The Hurricanes’ Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Kylem O’Donnell, and new recruit Logan Crowley, who returns to Taranaki after playing in Canterbury, are the halfbacks selected, while Taranaki under-19 rep Ciarahn Matoe, who has been studying and playing in Waikato, will have the chance to learn from first five-eighths Marty McKenzie and Stephen Perofeta, who can also cover fullback.
The combative Johnny Fa’auli, Sean Wainui and Super Rugby champion Crusader Seta Tamanivalu will enjoy running off the skill and guile of Ngatai in the midfield, while the squad has great finishers out wide in Manasa Mataele, Latu Vaeno, Declan O’Donnell and New Zealand sevens rep Beaudein Waaka, who can play fullback or first five-eighth. Tamanivalu is also an option on the wing, where he played the Super Rugby final.
“The backline has a lot of experience and skill and is a really exciting prospect,” Cooper said.
Cooper, in his last season in charge of the Port Taranaki Bulls before he takes up the head coaching job with the Chiefs, said making the playoffs was the minimum goal for the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup.
“Our expectation is to make the top four and earn a home playoff,” he said. “We’ve got a great squad of experience and youth, and a mix of Super Rugby and Taranaki club players, so it’s going to be exciting watching this team come together and proudly represent Taranaki.”
The Port Taranaki Bulls kick off their 2017 Mitre 10 Cup campaign against Waikato at Yarrow Stadium, Saturday, 19 August at 5.05pm.
Port Taranaki Bulls squad for the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup:
Forwards: Mitchell Graham (34 caps), Jared Proffit (6), Reuben O’Neill (13), Asaeli Sorovaki (2), Mike Kainga (4), Angus Ta’avao (22), Ricky Riccitelli (0), Sione Lea (46), Donald Maaka (0), Leon Power (28), Leighton Price (18), Finn Hoeata (0), Brad Tucker (0), Pita-Gus Sowakula (0), Adrian Wyrill (5), Lachlan Boshier (16), Toa Halafihi (24), Tom Florence (0).
Backs: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (21), Kylem O’Donnell (26), Logan Crowley (0), Marty McKenzie (27), Ciarahn Matoe (0), Stephen Perofeta (11), Charlie Ngatai (20), Johnny Fa’auli (10), Sean Wainui (25), Seta Tamanivalu (44), Manasa Mataele (6), Latu Vaeno (16), Declan O’Donnell (9), Beaudein Waaka (18).
Unavailable because of injury: Blade Thomson, James Broadhurst, Mitchell Brown, Berny Hall, Mitchell Crosswell, Ben Matwijou, Jackson Ormond.
Unavailable because of All Blacks selection: Beauden Barrett, Scott Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Waisake Naholo.