Heartland Championship preview: round eight

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Thursday, October 11, 2018    Campbell Burnes    Getty Images

It all kicks off at the newly renamed John Sturgeon Park, formerly Rugby Park, in Greymouth. One of West Coast’s finest rugby sons has been accorded this singular honour and the former All Blacks manager and life member of New Zealand Rugby would love nothing more than to see his beloved union beat winless East Coast with a bonus point and secure a home Lochore Cup semifinal. There is a caveat to that: Wairarapa-Bush and Mid Canterbury would both need to lose. That scenario is plausible. 
Wairarapa-Bush won a fine 23-5 victory in Greymouth last weekend, but coaches Joe Harwood and Piri Weepu know that North Otago will be desperate.

The Old Golds had too many errors in the 41-22 defeat to South Canterbury and now stand on the cusp of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Even if they win in Masterton, they would still need at least two other results to go their way. Still, 18 seasons of post-season play for a small union such as North Otago is a remarkable effort.

Poverty Bay has a slim show of Lochore Cup qualification, currently in 10th position. Mana Otai’s men scored six tries against King Country, but conceded 59 points, so some remedial work on the defensive systems was in order. Rebecca Mahoney takes the whistle for her third Heartland Championship fixture. By all accounts, she has done a fine job.

The Gisbornites host Buller, which picked up its first win of a trying 2018, but it was an emotional one, defeating Mid Canterbury 37-19 in Luke Brownlee’s 200th outing for the union. The flame-haired flanker kicked the final conversion and now has four tries and one goal from his Buller career. He has confirmed that this match will be his last for the union for which he has shed blood since 1999. More to the point, Buller appears to have rediscovered some of its attacking mojo, with No 12 Mike Wells’ brace the highlight of last weekend’s display.
Mid Canterbury hosts King Country knowing a win will seal the Hammers’ Lochore Cup berth. The Rams have played well for much of this season – their running and handling skills were in stark evidence in Taupo against Poverty Bay – and a win in Ashburton will see them qualify for the Meads Cup, which would have special meaning for them not much more than a year since the passing of Sir Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads.

Thames Valley put on some razzle-dazzle to edge Horowhenua Kapiti 29-27 in Te Aroha in special jerseys in honour of the Goldfields. The veteran Alex Bradley nabbed a double, while prop Sitiveni Tupou set up Brett Ranga for a crowd-pleasing try. But the Swamp Foxes will need more substance to go with that style when facing Hanan Shield holder South Canterbury in Timaru. The venue will be temporarily renamed Matt Fetu Stadium to honour the union’s latest centurion. The winner will gain a precious home Meads Cup semifinal.

Leaders Wanganui will honour Craig Clare, who brought up his 100th provincial game last weekend, while wing Cam Crowley played his 50th. Wanganui is safely through to a Meads Cup home semifinal but will be keen to finish the regular season on a high against Horowhenua Kapiti, for whom James So’oialo was in prime form against the Swamp Foxes, scoring 27 points. These unions last locked horns in the 2017 Meads Cup final in Levin.

The match-ups:

West Coast v East Coast

Saturday October 13, 2pm at John Sturgeon Park, Greymouth
Referee: Mike Lash (Tasman)
Played: 27 (1976-2017)
Wins: East Coast 15, West Coast 12
Last match: West Coast 32 East Coast 19 (September 9, 2017)

Mid Canterbury v King Country
Saturday October 13, 2.30pm at Ashburton Showgrounds, Ashburton
Referee: Nick Webster (South Canterbury)
Played: 22 (1958-2017)
Wins: King Country 12 Mid Canterbury 10
Last match: Mid Canterbury 43 King Country 38 (October 14, 2017)

Wairarapa-Bush v North Otago
Saturday October 13, 2.30pm at Trust House Memorial Park, Masterton
Referee: Hugh Reed (Hawke’s Bay)
Played: 18 (1972-2017)
Wins: North Otago 11, Wairarapa-Bush 7
Last match: Wairarapa-Bush 38 North Otago 22 (September 24, 2016)

Wanganui v Horowhenua Kapiti
Saturday October 13, 2.30pm at Cooks Gardens, Wanganui
Referee: Tim Griffiths (Manawatu)
Played: 77 (1903-2017)
Wins: Wanganui 64, Horowhenua Kapiti 12, Drawn 1
Last match: Wanganui 30 Horowhenua Kapiti 14 (October 28, 2017, MCF)

Poverty Bay v Buller
Saturday October 13, 2.30pm at More FM Rugby Park, Gisborne
Referee: Rebecca Mahoney (Wairarapa-Bush)
Played: 27 (1967-2016)
Wins: Poverty Bay 17, Buller 10
Last match: Buller 30 Poverty Bay 18 (September 10, 2016)

South Canterbury v Thames Valley
Saturday October 13, 2.30pm at Alpine Energy Stadium, Timaru
Referee: Richard Kelly (Taranaki)
Played: 45 (1961-2016)
Wins: South Canterbury 26, Thames Valley 19
Last match: South Canterbury 62 Thames Valley 16 (September 24, 2016)