Harbour More Than Satisfied With Premiership Season Start

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Mitre 10 Cup Rd 2 - Southland v North Harbour
INVERCARGILL, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 24: Tom Coventry, head coach of North Harbour, looks on during team warm up ahead of the Mitre 10 Cup match between Southland and North Harbour at Rugby Park Stadium on August 24, 2017 in Invercargill, New Zealand. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

It was a pulsating local derby, between Northland and North Harbour (Harbour Rugby). The home side had huge local support but in the end, the visitors triumphed. Another victory which see’s North Harbour more than satisfied with their Premiership season start.

Five victories–which is more than the combined total of a few years ago–is the sensational start that see’s Harbour sitting clear in second place, on the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership table. Sitting behind Canterbury, but clear of much larger and much more admired provinces.

The projected start for the season by head coach Tom Coventry might well not have been five-for-five, as Coventry is more circumspect. He will have planned for a solid start, and when asked by Last Word on Rugby Thursday how he saw the start of the season by Harbour, his answer was more than endorsing.

“Our performances have been mixed. The teams working well, after nice fixture against Auckland at home, we had to work hard against Counties. We are making little improvements in our game,” was the feeling Coventry had.

“There pretty motivated to be better every week, and that’s the main thing.”

Talking ahead of the Week Five clash in Whangarei, his caution belies the success that the side are enjoying.

Harbour More Than Satisfied With Premiership Season Start

The above highlights package only tells some of the story, with a cut-and-thrust nature to the game. It was two confident sides holding each other back for much of the game. Three penalties each in the opening half, showing that the defences were smartly in-tune.

Not until the players tired, did any space open. And for Harbour, injecting substitutes only benefited to a small degree. Shaun Treeby got his first run, after returning from South Africa. And when the space opened for Tevita Li, he finished off a well executed try movement.

Not until the final, magical intercept and masterful piece of ball control by Matt Vaega, was the game secured. Possibly cruel, but with the scores so close, inches determined the winner, and the team to secure four valuable competition points.

North Harbour 31 – Tries: Li, Volavola, Vaega; Penalties: Gatland (4); Conversions: Gatland (2)

Northland 22 – Tries: Hyland; Pen: Hawkins (3) Breen (1); Con: Breen

Win Continues Fine Run in Premiership

Battling local rivals is one thing, and Coventry was more than satisfied to now hold a two-to-one record this season over Northland – as trial games had gone both ways, so to claw back a win is pleasing.

As is the strong unity of the side. A commodity that the coach and players hold firmly in 2017. This is a continuation of the groundwork put in by assistant Daniel Halangahau and former-coach Steve Jackson last season, so there is belief in Harbour rugby. Still wanting to gain the respect of fellow unions and rugby fans, by their results and attitude, the side is accomplishing that ideal.

“Expectations are that they want to continue to get better, and work hard for each other. That combines together on the back of some success last year, is part of the reason the side is so tight-knit”. Coventry doesn’t think they are proven yet, it will take some consistency and performance.

And they are “not done yet”. With the big task next week of meeting Canterbury, likely to be a true test of Harbour’s calibre. To be played at home on a Saturday afternoon, the North Harbour faithful must surely have this Mitre 10 Cup fixture firmly written in their calendars.

Coventry knew this too. After the local derby games–with not much love lost between those four local sides–it doesn’t get any easier. Coventry quotes the old cliché ‘you’ve just got to get prepared for one game at a time’. So after side-stepping the challenge of the Northland Taniwha, the pressure is on them in one weeks time.

North Harbour v Canterbury, September 23. QBE Stadium

Canterbury are the team every side wants to emulate. Coventry knew this, and said that “they are flying high aren’t they, everyone knows how good Canterbury are.

“It’s going to take a good performance to beat them.”

And with the sixth game, the side must take advantage of their home ground advantage. The Christchurch team are powerful at home, and have powered past two sides recently by scoring over 150 points in those matches.

“After two thirds of the season, we have our short week after that; Canterbury have theirs now, so it doesn’t get any easier in this competition. We’ll try and manage our squad as we can.”

Realistic of Success from Premiership Season Start

Meeting Canterbury soon, and then Hawke’s Bay at home the following Friday night, that is before starting the short turnaround week [three matches in ten days]. This is probably going to be the most critical stage for Harbour rugby in 2017. While not looking too far ahead, Tom Coventry is a man familiar with player management – after his term as head coach of London Irish.

In the Aviva Premiership; being such a long season, Coventry would have needed to manage players and rotate men to gain the most from his squad. In the Mitre 10 Cup, he is doing that too–but in a way to keep his team energized.

“With such short timings of fixtures, we want to be ready but not look too far ahead.”

So this weekend, some of the wider squad members will be sent down to Pukekohe, for a Development Squad match against Counties. It means they see game time, keep off any accumulated rust and also bring players up to the high expectations of professional rugby.

And for a player like Shaun Treeby, that meant returning from his Super Rugby term with the Stormers in Cape Town, to head straight onto the bench. An experienced midfielder, he brings more than enough to the squad. A capable and reliable option, he fills in where George Pisi might have. The 31 year old Pisi is not displaying his best form at this time, so Pisi will pick some of that confidence up, running up against Counties-Manukau ‘B team’.

So rotation is a valuable tool, but the evidence is clear that the starting XV are in a purple-patch of form; as evidenced last night.

Starting Side High-Performing Unit

With the leading players all showing their development from last year, the strong starting lineup is polished by locals as well as imports like Treeby and others.

Jarrad Hoeata is one figure who is showing his real value. Brought in to replace departed Chris Vui, he is repaying that confidence on the field. Even in such a crunching match like against Northland, his ‘massive ticker’ meant he was giving it everything after 70 minutes, he was tackling as well as in minute one.

Co-captain Matt Duffie commented on Hoeata before the season started. “We’ve brought in Jarrad, who obviously has plenty of overseas experience. He’s tough, he’s a hard nosed player and those are the type of guys we like here at Harbour.”

And it will be the right mix of players, of team management and of good fortune, to see Harbour taking the right steps up the ranks in domestic rugby. Looking to rebuild credibility, results on the field so far have achieved that. Next week against Canterbury might ‘the hardest step yet’ but the group will embrace that challenge.

A positive Premiership season start this far is just what the squad and their fans will be enjoying most in 2017.

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