Taranaki Rugby drops through Mitre 10 Cup relegation ‘trap door’

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Taranaki Rugby drops through Mitre 10 Cup relegation ‘trap door'
NEW PLYMOUTH, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 12: Vaea Fifita of Wellington is tackled by Ricky Riccitelli of Taranaki during the round nine Mitre 10 Cup match between Taranaki and Wellington at Yarrow Stadium on October 12, 2018 in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The 2018 Mitre 10 Cup season will not be remembered fondly by Taranaki Rugby, with the ‘Amber and Blacks’ finishing bottom of the seven-team Division One [Premiership]. And as such of their lowly position against the premier NZ domestic rugby sides, the proud union suffered relegation to the secondary Championship tier for the 2019 season as a result.

Last Friday’s loss to Wellington ran the losing streak this season to seven games, with only winless Southland (who’s mark now sits at 21 across three seasons) enduring a longer run. It was one of the worst and was dampened further after the popular Ranfurly Shield was relinquished mid-season.

It has been an Annus Horribulus for the union – all on top of the Yarrow Stadium’s south and north stands being condemned, which was due to both Insurance and Health and Safety compliance issues. So, as badly as the new coaching group wished for better, Taranaki Rugby drops through the relegation ‘trap door’.

The end of year mightn’t have come soon enough for fans of the Taranaki Bulls.

Taranaki Rugby drops through Mitre 10 Cup relegation ‘trap door’

Going into the campaign, however, hopes were high that the side would repeat it’s playoff appearances of the past four seasons. And, if things proceeded as planned then, a second title was not out of the question (following the 2014 success) could’ve been within grasp.

On paper, the squad was impressive; even accounting for the likely absence of the three Barrett brothers and Waisake Naholo on All Black’s duty. The Bulls could boast Super Rugby players at every position and had recruited Highlanders midfielder (and local boy) Teihorangi Walden, former All Black Brendon Leonard, and Seven’s rep Regan Ware as well as another talented batch of youngsters from the school ranks.

Significantly, in the coaches chair, Willie Rickards moved onto the hot seat left by Colin Cooper – who returned to Super Rugby head coach duty at the Chiefs. Sure it was a huge adjustment. But while a change in direction, it should not have been seen as a ‘paradigm shift’ from the formula that had collected the Ranfurly Shield in 2017.

However, the negative omens were there from the beginning. Last November, an engineering report ruled the TSB Bank main stand at Yarrows Stadium off-limits, forcing the relocation of the union office and facilities. It also importantly meant the closing of corporate boxes, which are vital to matchday income.

Worse came in June though, when the Yarrow Stand (West Stand) followed suit, and only through some temporary measures by the union was a move to Inglewood – some 20km down the road – avoided for the season. The actions reduced spectator number massively, and the televisual aspect of empty stands [not within their control] would be a repeated downside from the season-on-set.

Early Season positives lost over 2019 season for Taranaki Rugby

On the field, the two early season Ranfurly Shield challenges from Heartland Championship sides Poverty Bay and Wanganui were easily seen off. It was largely seen off by players expecting to have only a fringe role going forward (and disguised other issues).

However those dark clouds became thicker with several player alterations (some forced through injury or selection to higher honours). Notably Marty McKenzie – who’s goalkicking proved so decisive in the Ranfurly Shield triumph over Canterbury in 2019 – was lost to the squad.

That was in addition to powerhouse prop Mitchell Graham. With each suffering season-ending injuries during Super Rugby, it was a negative on the chances of Taranaki Rugby that were not required

The thin margin of error in 2018 was already getting thinner.

The 2018 Mitre 10 Cup campaign started poorly, with a drab, flat, opening 30-10 drubbing at the hands of Bay of Plenty in Rotorua. However in front of their home fans a week later they fired, holding onto the Shield by beating Manawatu 41-21. And the result that followed that, looked to be an important win away over Counties-Manukau 26-19.

But, that was the high point of the season. On the short turnaround they sleepwalked through a game against Northland in Whangarei, before Jesse Parete (more on him later) conceded a penalty under his own sticks for the home side to walk away 18-17 winners. A week later, the Shield was meekly surrendered to Waikato 19-33, and – to make matters worse – then they were thumped 17-53 by Tasman.

All the while more and more players – Lachlan Boshier and Pita-Gus Sowakula amongst others – were lost to injury.

Season might have been changed with more Discipline

There was a brief revival with a narrow 30-31 loss to frontrunners Auckland and hopes were raised that at worst, the specter of relegation could be avoided. Those were all but though, as Taranaki Rugby were crushed by 26-55 by North Harbour the following week. A sharp drop in performance that was then further deepened with Jarrod Hoeata’s sixth-minute sending-off in the 7-41 loss to Canterbury.

Relegation was finally confirmed, with the 10-34 defeat by Wellington. By that time, no fewer than 15 players were ruled out with injury. So several of those involved in the telling final blow had experienced little game time; other than those pair of Ranfurly Shield matches and a cameo or two from the bench, several player’s found themselves starting against competition heavyweights.

In the end, the conclusion was merciful.

As backbreaking as those injuries were and the consequential impact it had on the team, the most galling aspect of Taranaki’s play this season was their issues with discipline. Parete and Hoeata were especially guilty, with both seemingly more interested in niggly, negative actions, than playing rugby.

Taken in isolation, Parete’s needless concession of that penalty against Northland wouldn’t have saved the season but it certainly didn’t help, and Hoeata’s red card against Canterbury made an already difficult task all but impossible.

Taranaki Rugby must grab hold of the Positives

There were positives to be had though. Hooker Ricci Riccitelli was both industrious and indestructible and has logged an immense amount of minutes this year when his Hurricanes efforts are considered as well.

Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has established himself as the number three halfback in the All Black selectors eyes, there was a deserved callup and Test debut for usual skipper Angus Ta’avao, and fellow prop Reuben O’Neill was named in the extended squad for the upcoming matches in Japan.

Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi of the All Blacks performs the haka during The Rugby Championship match in Nelson, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Others would have benefitted from game time in the competition that they wouldn’t have expected, and those are the sort of positives an otherwise lost season.

It will stick in the craw of some that Ta’avao, Tahuriorangi, and Jordie Barrett weren’t released for the last-gasp Wellington clash…. especially when they had little or no game-time in the last legs of the Rugby Championship. Yet Manawatu had three All Blacks squad player’s released to them for their meaningless last match against Southland.

Taranaki Rugby Supporters Club president Grant Hassall is confident Taranaki rugby fans won’t desert their team.

“Man up. Take the good with the bad. No one envisioned this would was going to transpire in 2018 but it has and it will be a test of the people of Taranaki how we respond to it. And I’m confident that we will respond in a positive way and we will see happy days again.”

Taranaki’s fans will expect an immediate return to the Premiership for 2020. For that to occur, that will mean retaining as much of the core group from this season, as they can. While hoping the injury curse of 2018 doesn’t strike again.

After all, it could hardly get any worse.

 

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