Champion Southern hit by loss of players

Then Southern captain Josh Walden holds the shield aloft after this side was victorious against Harbour in the Dunedin club premier final at Forsyth Barr Stadium last year. Photo: Linda Robertson
Then Southern captain Josh Walden holds the shield aloft after this side was victorious against Harbour in the Dunedin club premier final at Forsyth Barr Stadium last year. Photo: Linda Robertson
It’s almost time to put away the whites and strap on the boots. The ODT club rugby writers looks at the prospects of the nine teams in the Dunedin premier club competition.


Last year: Champion

Coach: Paul Miller (second year)

Squad. -

Forwards: Simon Knight, Tira Phillipson-Puna, Jone Lesi, Mike Mata'afa, Hisa Sisagi, Sam Pene, Alex Nettleton, Axel Hohneck, Jermayne Maika, Tom Hume, Mika Mafi, Kyle Harris (captain), Pari Pari Parkinson.

Backs: Liam Howley, Wilson Driver, Bryce Hosie (vice captain), Josh Ioane, Riku Kitahara, Paul Tupai, Jono Hayes, Tei Walden, Josh Gordon, Mitch Kelly, Joshua Buchan, Mackenzie Haugh.

Southern's biggest challenge shapes as depth as it looks to maintain its spot at the top of the tree.

The Magpies' status as reigning champion and perennial powerhouse ought to have made recruitment a breeze.

But coach Paul Miller has highlighted it as a significant issue, adding there had been a drop-off in the number of colts players coming through as well.

Southern's mighty pack has been stripped of some muscle with prop Craig Millar, hooker Cameron Keech and line-out forward Josh Clark having moved on. Millar is playing for Japanese Super Rugby franchise the Sunwolves, while Keech has moved to Wellington and Clark has transferred to Green Island.

Southern should still get plenty of traction around the ruck through powerful loose forward Mika Mafi and experienced props Mike Mata'afa and Hisa Sasagi.

Halfback Josh Walden has moved to Hong Kong but has been replaced by Stags halfback Liam Howley, so should not lose too much there.

Despite a few personnel struggles, Southern is set on going back to back but is realistic about the challenge ahead.

''I don't like the term rebuilding but we will just try and compete and perform to our best ability each week,'' Miller said.



Last year: Runner-up

Coach: Ryan Nicholas, assistant Scott Guthrie

Squad. -

Forwards: Charles Elton (c), George Bower, Sekonaia Pole, Aidan Spence, Benny Rumble, Abraham Pole, Christian Schaaf, Joketani Koroi, Sione Misiloi, Alan Burling, Tim Medder, James Tomkinson, Solomon Pole, PJ Tili.

Backs: Vinny Isherwood, Tala Fagasoaia, Jinho Mun, Logan Allen, Sam Porter, Sio Tomkinson, Hemaua Samasoni, Ewan Brumwell, Marckis Schaaf, Sala Haleleva, Ngana Nicholas, Ratu Bishop, Ben Pringle.

New coach Ryan Nicholas reckons his side has the potential to return to the final and maybe even win it.

Harbour is still searching for its first senior title as a club and had a golden opportunity last season.

It played some wonderful rugby to beat Dunedin in the semifinal and had enough ball in the final to overcome Southern. But its opponent made more of its opportunities to clinch a 24-17 win.

Harbour has most of the pack back but will be without burly loose forward Ben Whale.

He had a tremendous season and was perhaps a little underrated by those higher up.

Fleet-footed utility back Jerome Harimate has also moved on and elusive fullback Sala Halaleva is chasing a professional contract and may not feature either.

Winger Hemaua Samasoni is shifting to loose forward to make more use of his hulking frame, so the stocks are looking a little thin in the midfield and outside backs with Nicholas suggesting he might have to put the boots back on.

But the Hawks will still boast a combative set of forwards including robust lock Chucky Koroi and a front row featuring Sekonaia Pole and Giorgio Bower.



Last year: Beaten semifinalist

Coach: Kane Jury (first year), assistants Bronson Ross and Elgan O'Donnell

Squad. -

Forwards: Teague McElroy, Josh Thom, Donald Brighouse, Corrie Barrett, Bronson Ross, Aiden Lloyd, Sam Anderson- Heather, Mark Grieve-Dunn, Liam Trainor, Ben Freschini, Richard Thompson, Hame Toma, Morgan Reddy, Ash Craig, Daniel Hogan, Jamie Mowat.

Backs: Tim Hogan, Will Boswell, Ben Taylor, George Witana, Nikau McGregor, Cam Hay, Solofa Silipa, James Te Pairi, Izzy Duncanson, Zac Harrison-Jones, Mone Samate-Palu, Rory Ward, Charlie McCartin.

Dunedin has promoted from within the club to fill any vacancies this season.

But while there will be plenty of new faces in the premier side, there will be enough familiar mugs scooting about to think this side will be in the mix come the playoffs.

Coach Kane Jury has promised a more expansive game but one imagines, when the acid goes on, Dunedin will revert to type and punch the ball up through its powerful forward pack.

Lock Mark Grieve-Dunn and hard-working loose forward Hame Toma are never too far from the ball and are back for another shot at the title. Prop Donald Brighouse is a key figure in Dunedin's powerful scrum, while promising pivot George Witana will be charged with organising the backline and has been named vice-captain.

There is pace out wide with winger Mone Samate-Palu.

Halfbacks Jono Ruru and Will Cosgriff have moved on, fullback Tim Cossens has headed North and hooker Sam Anderson-Heather is recovering from an injury and will miss the early part of the season.

Otago utility back Leroy van Dam is only a maybe. He has signed with an overseas club and is unsure whether he will return.



Last year: Beaten semifinalist

Coach: Ryan Martin (second year), assistant Roger Cotton

Squad. -

Forwards: Jonah Aoina, Lachie Landels, George Hendry, Pita Sinamoni, Isimeli Tuivaga, Riley McDowall, Slade McDowall, Patrick McCurran, Sidney Fidow, Mitch Pryde, Willie Miller, Sean Jansen, Christian Lio Willie, Shane Calder, Sam Jones, Dan Pryor, Ash Dixon, Iakopo Petelo, Sam Wyber.

Backs: Josh Renton, Ben Miller, Jordan McEntee, TJ Ane, Matt Jones, Tarzan Smith, Layne Opetaia, Kadin Brocks, Gus Gray, Logan Moore, Chris Whitley, Nic Murray, Terrence Hepetema, Corey Miller.

Kaikorai will have to find someone else to make the thousands of tackles lock Blair Tweed made every game.

He is playing professionally in Japan and is a huge loss for the 2016 champion.

Experienced midfielder Danny van der Voort has retired after more than 100 games for the club and his steady influence will be sorely missed as well.

But coach Ryan Martin is upbeat about his side's prospects. He is confident Kaikorai still has an exciting squad.

Prop Jonah Aoina knows his way to the tryline and will set a good base up front. He will captain this year.

Winger Matt Jones has wonderful skills in the air, plenty of pace and is an accurate goal-kicker.

Martin is hoping for big things from pivot Ben Miller and Slade McDowall is a quality loose forward.

Kaikorai is also hoping Highlanders halfback Josh Renton will be released to play the odd game. Pencil this team into your top four.



Last year: Fifth

Coach: Peter McIntyre, assistant Roy Hawker

Squad. -

Forwards: Jack McHugh (captain), Angus Williams, Callum Hardie, Josh Polycarpio, Jim Smith, Blake Bradley, Ben Smith, Josh Hill, Hadleigh Morgan, Ben Reidy, Mark Thorne, Corey Morrison, Dale Jarden, Henry Lissaman, Ricky Jackson, Sam Dickson, Kilipatea Lea.

Backs: Graham Urquhart, Keiran McLay, Dominic Clapcott, Roman Blackman, Mike Williams, Tyler Berry, Hamish Drummond, Calvin Vari, Devin Lawson, Cam Gerlach, Tom Morrison, Dan Crowley, Jacob Bird, Gavin Stark, Taylor Haugh, Josh Timu, Connor McLeod.

Rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding.

It is a tired phrase but neatly sums up where University is at this season.

The club has lost ''up to a dozen players'' and the gaps have mostly been filled by colts players, coach Peter McIntyre said before rattling off a list of missing players including Sam Aitken, Stephen Fenemor, Sione Teu, Sam McLachlan, Damien Scott, Max Hunt, Matt Broadbent, Sam Pene, Tom Hardy, Fa'asiu Fuata'i and Jack Sherratt.

''That is a big hole to fill,'' McIntyre said.

The goal is to return to the playoffs after missing out last year. But realistically that may be a tall order given the side has lost so much player depth.

There is still strike power in speedy winger Gavin Stark and promising midfielder Josh Timu, while front rower Kilipatea Lea is a powerful young man.

Names to watch out for include loose forward Jack McHugh. He will captain and is a highly-regarded emerging player.

Josh Hill is one of the new breed of locks coming through. He is physical, skilful and potentially a representative player in the making.

Fullback stroke first five-eighth Tom Morrison is an attacking player who is looking to build on last season.



Last year: Sixth

Coach: Marty Gray (first year), assistants Allan Wheeler and Bevan Townsend

Squad. -

Forwards:Witana Petley, Alex Frood, Tia Ratu, Tristian Fuli, Will Ward, Daniel Smith,

Liam Coltman, Matt Broadbent, Hayden Fleury, Ben Webby, Henri Hooker, Ben Tuiomanufili, Jacob Coughlin, Connor Van Turnhout, Tom Frood, Rory Naylor

Backs: Legin Felix-Hotham, Brady Kingan, Zac Porter, Tevita Inoke, Junior Vitale, Brad Morgan, John Tapueluluheu, Connor Newlands, Jona Nareki, Vilimoni Koroi,

Alhambra-Union had an 'if only year'' last season.

If only it had been able to close out a few more of those tight games the top four was within reach.

But the team has lost a lot of firepower during the summer break and the challenge ahead looks daunting.

Coach Marty Gray said with all the changes to the line-up, the team faced some serious rebuilding.

The likes of Jona Nareki and Vilimoni Koroi have been lost to the national sevens team and may not play much.

That is two twinkle-toed backs down which means the forward pack will have to do a lot more.

Alhambra will lean heavily on key players Ben Webby, Jacob Coughlan and Ben Tuimanufili to provide the muscle up front, while halfback Legin Felix-Hotham and first five-eighth Zach Porter will provide the direction.

Exciting winger John Tapueluluheu is a quality finisher but the rest of the vacancies will have to be filled by colts players and by reshuffling the line-up.

There is still a reasonable core of players returning but it could be a long season for Union. The Broncos will still throw the ball around, though.



Last year: Seventh

Coach: Andrew Melville (fifth year), assistant Richard Lindsay

Squad. -

Forwards: Tom Rowe, Chris Shields, Elli Tonga, Liam Sharples,

Caleb Wilson, Ciaran Jansen, Haki Hamilton, Luke van Gorp,

Carlin Wilkinson, Corey McCaffery, Jesse Muir, Mathew McCormick, Chris Bell, Daniel Mulvena, Karl Still, Reilly Leonard.

Backs: Ronin Ainsley, Jordan Arnold, Sasha Bachurin, Tyron Rogers,

Bailey Matoe, Keenan Masina, Tatai Proctor, Zayden Tane, Chris McNoe, Mark Mclver, Thomas Johnson, Tamati Moana-Orupe, Devin Redfern, Matry McKenzie.

Zingari-Richmond is looking to improve on its seventh placing and bring more consistency into its game.

It was in contention in plenty of games last year but its form ebbed and flowed throughout games and it was guilty of not valuing possession enough at times.

Mistakes cost it in some close games although it showed enterprise and scored some nice tries.

The side has lost its two impressive Irishman with fullback Ciaran Gaffney and midfielder Dwayne Corcoran back home. Experienced prop Chris Preddie, who has played more than 100 premier games for the club, is not returning.

Coach Andrew Melville is in his fifth year at the helm and is assisted by Richard Lindsay with Neil Brew lending a hand.

Veteran Chris Bell is back again while Auckland midfielder Keenan Masina has joined the club. He played for Auckland B, so is a handy acquisition.

Lock Tom Rowe will captain the side again, although he picked up a broken wrist while playing for Otago last season and is a few weeks away from taking the field.

The Colours will again be guided round the field by pivot Thomas Johnson.



Last year: Eighth

Coach: Phil Young (second year), assistants David Hunter and Adam Whaanga

Squad. -

Forwards: Tom Hill, Ethan Harrex, Nick Gee, Brady Robertson, Tom Hardy, Ryan Williams, Josh Larsen, Vinnie O'Connell, Brendon Murdoch, Shea Robertson, Cameron Wood, Brodie Hume, Josh Brown, Nick Henderson, Sam Fischli, Alex Niedzwiecki.

Backs: Kurt Hammer, Daine Gagai, Brodie Flannery, Josh Casey, Chase Owen, Matt Whaanga, Kori Rupene, James Wilson-Bishop, Midge van Boxtel, Hunter Fiddes, Tyler Ford, Shannon Young, Glen Beadle, Mitchell Scott, Chris O'Connell, Marc Rooney.

Taieri was very much in a rebuilding phase last year and a series of injuries further conspired against the side.

The club won the senior banner in 2011, 2012 and 2014, so to slip all the way to eighth was quite a fall.

But there was not much among the bottom four or five teams. Taieri had five wins which was one more win than Alhambra-Union, which finished in sixth thanks to a large collection of bonus points.

The Eels struggled to pick up four-try bonus points and have highlighted that as an area they want to improve this season.

The pack has been strengthened with the return of lock Josh Larsen, while Tasman prop Tom Hill and University hooker Tom Hardy will add their weight to the scrum.

Loose forward Brodie Hume missed most of last season with an injury and will link up with the likes of Nick Henderson and Josh Brown.

Halfback Kurt Hammer and first five-eighth Josh Casey shape as a formidable duo, while midfielder Matt Whaanga should provide some penetration.

There is also pace out wide with Mitchell Scott back for another stint.



Last year: Ninth

Coach: Dean Moeahu (third year), assistant Corey Kara

Squad. -

Forwards: Corey Wheeler, Terry Gough, Timoci Tawaketini, Richard Te Nahu, Hamish Clapp, Peter Mirrielees, Brett Kingsbury, Jake-Lane Fowler, Jared Williams, Logan Taimalie, Eddie van Aalst, Woody Kirkwood, Tim Heller, Josh Hayward, Brad Primmer, Simon Tupu, Josh Clark, Corne Ludick, Lafaele Faamoe, Siate Tokolahi, Kalolo Tuiloma, Jackson Hemopo.

Backs: Devin Stapley, Sean Driver, Scott Emmerson, Finn Hart-Strawbridge, Ben Patston, Sunia Makasini, Sam Eriepa, Kane Pomare, Delaney McKenzie, Alex Barnsley, Nelson Yorston, Matt McCutcheon, Sione Etoni, Shane McNoe, Ben Smith.

Green Island coach Dean Moeahu felt his side did not get the rewards it deserved last season.

The club finished at the bottom of the standings but there was not much between the bottom five placed sides in the competition and Moeahu is hopeful his team can push for a spot in the playoffs this season.

That might seem like a rapid rise but the club has been building since those days a few years ago when it was losing games by margins which more closely resemble cricket scores.

Green Island has gained the services of one of the best lineout forwards in the grade with Josh Clark coming over from Southern and linking up with his old Pirates team-mate Jared Williams.

Canterbury pivot Finn Hart-Strawbridge is another big signing. He has been lured south by Otago but coped a two-year ban from all sport in 2015 for ordering performance-enhancing drugs over the internet.

Hooker Brett Kingsbury shapes as one to watch, while lock Woody Kirkwood has bulked up and the pack should be competitive.

Its job will be to get the ball for an enterprising backline.

-Team names were provided by the clubs.


Do we know if the Highlanders are releasing players to clubs where possible ?

No mention in the article.