Heartland Tour memorable

Maleli Sau, Jackson Donlan, Nete Caucau and manager Tony Harrison represented Mid Canterbury on the Heartland tour.

Maleli Sau, Jackson Donlan, Nete Caucau and manager Tony Harrison represented Mid Canterbury on the Heartland tour. Three Mid Canterbury players were selected to the Heartland XV 2016 tour while Hammers manager Tony Harrison was also chosen to manage the team. Ashburton Guardian News & Sports Co-ordinator James Ford caught up with Harrison to discuss the tour and the Mid Canterbury players’ performances.

The Heartland XV picked up good wins against New Zealand Marist and Nadi before a narrow loss against Fijian champions Nadroga, what did you make of the three performances?

Heartland XV 35 New Zealand Marist 14

With limited preparation and players from 11 of the 12 provinces represented it’s always a tough ask to bring players together in a short space of time and expect them to gel straight away.

A simple game plan, one which could be implemented within the little time we had, was agreed upon by all and included considerable input from the senior players.

We started off slow against Marist, not scoring until the 23rd minute, and our scrum was certainly under the pump from a strong Marist pack.

However, once the boys started to work more together as a team, more opportunities opened up and we established a 14-0 lead at the half-time break.

Straight after half time we had a prop binned for 10min and that’s when Marist scored their two tries. Once we were back at full strength we started to dominate the game up front and eventually scored three more tries in the second half, and, to be fair, it could be have been a couple more.

But overall, we gave ourselves a pass mark to the start of the campaign.

Heartland XV 26 Nadi 19

Against Nadi, we didn’t really know what to expect. With limited footage available it was a little difficult to prepare an appropriate game plan.

Two quick tries in the first 15 minutes and we were up 12-0.

Nadi were looking a little disorganised but unfortunately we were unable to capitalise on that and only went in 12-0 up at the break.

Two more tries in the first 10 minutes of the second half and we were up 26-0 but once again, we couldn’t carry on and put them away. Nadi came back strong in the latter half of the second half and that’s when the heat started to affect our guys.

Coming from 16-18 degrees in Auckland to 30 degrees and humid in Nadi was certainly a shock to the system, but it was a good blowout for the next match against Nadroga and certainly gave the coaches a lot to think about in terms of selection for the final game.

Heartland XV 22 Nadroga 26

The game versus Nadroga was always going to be the test match of the tour.

Fijian champions for many years and the strongest provincial side in Fiji by a long way, the feeder club to Clermont in France, they were always going to be tough and everywhere we went we were constantly reminded of how strong they were.

Kick-off at 7pm was good for us as it was going to be slightly cooler.

The sheer size and physical presence of the Nadroga team was impressive.

Made up of a mixture of army, police and professional players, it was very obvious they were a step or two above Nadi and a very professional and well drilled side.

We started the game well, holding onto the ball for extended periods and not allowing Nadroga to get a hold of it as we knew they would be dangerous both in broken play but also gaining quick ball from the rucks.

After 10 minutes we were up 10-0 with a converted try and penalty.

Once Nadroga got the ball they were dangerous, out wide they had strength, size and pace, and in close their size allowed them to off load in contact at will. Because of their size and strength they were difficult to tackle and their leg drive in contact was impressive to watch. They scored two tries in the first half to lead at half-time 14-10.

We were still confident at the half-time break and just needed to maintain our structure and stick to our game plan and the opportunities would come.

Nadroga got off to a flier in the second half and before we knew it we were down 26-12. In the last 25 minutes with some fresh legs we started to play, but their defence was strong. We scored two late tries in the last six minutes but couldn’t quite get over the line. We certainly had the team to win but you have to put an 80 minute performance on the park.

Overall, generally very happy with the way the team performed given the short time we were together.

Mid Canterbury had three players selected, Jackson Donlan, Maleli Sau and Nete Caucau, how do you think they fared throughout the tour?

Jackson and Maleli played in all three games and Nete in the last two in Fiji.

Jackson was on the bench against NZ Marist and then started against Nadi and impressed particularly with his defence and mobility around the park, which led to him being picked to start against Nadroga.

The ball didn’t really go Maleli’s way in the first two games but he was impressive when he came on against Nadroga.

Nete was used as an impact player in both games in Fiji and was impressive in both. He carried strongly in both games and consistently carried two or three guys with him over the gain line, and worked really hard off the ball to stay in our systems.

It must be noted that both Nete and Maleli were the two most popular players with the Fijian media, albeit they were reluctant celebrities.

How important do you feel the Heartland XV is in representing the talent within the Heartland Championships?

The Heartland Competition is a pathway for those young players aspiring to further their rugby careers. There are recent examples of this with Stephen Perofeta last year and Marty Banks a few years back.

The Heartland XV also rewards those players who have achieved at the highest level for their province and allows them to pull on the black jersey to represent their country even though they are from the more rural regions of the country and are not the All Blacks.

What was your fondest memory of the tour?

The camaraderie within the team was nothing short of exceptional and I made a lot of new friends as a result – it was an awesome experience and a privilege to be a part of such an exceptional group of people.

Clearly representing your country in any capacity is special and a memory to cherish.

However, whilst in Fiji, we visited a primary school and a secondary school and this was a truly humbling experience.

The players were treated as though they were the All Blacks.

As soon as we entered the school grounds the noise was deafening and the players were swamped by all of the kids.

Photos, autographs and games with the kids all led to an experience that I will never forget.

A thank you to the Heartland unions who provided balls, clothing and spare kit must be acknowledged as this was gratefully received by both schools.

The fact that we visited Nete Caucau’s old secondary school Ratu Navula and met his teachers and rugby coaches made it even more worthwhile.

Do you feel the Fijian style of play differs a lot from ours?

Yes a lot, less structured and they like to use their natural flair of running and passing at will as opposed to staying in a system.

They are physically bigger and stronger and use this to their benefit – however, they don’t seem to be able to do it for the full 80 minutes.

Do you think any other Mid Canterbury players deserved to be selected to the Heartland XV?

There were other Mid Canterbury players that were part of a wider group being looked at during the season such as Will Mackenzie and Eric Duff but the competition for places was incredibly strong and all players that eventually made the NZ squad justified their selection.

Eric Duff may well have come close to selection, but made himself unavailable so in the end was not considered.

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

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