Despite the odds being stacked against the King Country Rams in their 20th crack at the Ranfurly Shield, they still hope to “ruffle a few feathers” in Matamata against holders Waikato.
Bedford Park, home of the United Matamata Sports club, may not be the Rams’ field of dreams on Saturday afternoon, but they are sure to leave nothing on the field, says their coach Daniel Alofa, of the reigning Lochore Cup champions.
“We haven’t spent much time together, so I’m mainly going off last year’s squad with a few coming in. Hopefully we can ruffle a few feathers on the weekend,” says Alofa. The King Country club final was last weekend, so there is now a clear focus, even though they have not been able to assemble for many trainings.
There are some useful looking footballers in the King Country squad, including fullback James Hemara and halfback Zayn Tipping, both of whom cracked the 2015 national Heartland XV. There is a seasoned look to the pack, with the well-travelled lock Gene Waller returning to partner captain Aarin Dunster, who suits up for the 94th time in King Country colours.
Former Taranaki rep Carl Carmichael is at loosehead prop.
Otorohanga, a King Country club that plays in the Waikato competition, provides a player to each side, with Anthony Wise at blindside flanker for the challengers. Kieron Rollinson, an ex-Taupo lad, has come down from Counties Manukau club rugby and will sit on the bench. He can play at No 10 and kicks goals. No 23 will be the union’s player of origin, outside back Thomas Orr, who plays for Waikato club Hautapu.
“For us to have a good crack at this Shield, you need some experience and the majority of those starting have already played for King Country,” says Alofa.
Dunster is the embodiment of that experience.
“It’s a big year for Azza. If he doesn’t get injured, touch wood, he’ll bring up his hundred for the union. That’s rare these days. This might be his last year, so we want to help him go out with a big bang,” adds Alofa.
The strategy will be fairly simple for a bunch of keen amateurs up against pros and semi-pros.
“Hopefully we bring some of that physicality, and some of their young ones will buckle, but they are pretty talented,” he says. “You have to play 80 minutes against all these bigger unions. The heartland sides start puckering out at about 60. We’ve gotta believe we can muster up against Waikato.”
Wing Iliesa Ratuva, who scored 10 tries for the Rams in 2015, is now on the Waikato left wing, and ran in a hat-trick against Thames Valley last month.
King Country last challenged for the Shield in 2012, falling 67-16 to Taranaki in Inglewood, another small town venue for provincial rugby’s greatest prize.
Adding to King Country’s motivation, were it needed, is the fact that Sir Colin Meads is unwell. The 80-year-old legend cannot be at the game, but has sent goodwill messages to the team and even recalled the 1958 15-11 Shield defeat to Taranaki, in which the challengers lost the lead only in the final few minutes.
“We want to make Pinetree proud. He’s a true King Country man,” says Alofa.
Waikato, for their part, have named six new caps in their 23. Twelve of the squad are back from the 83-13 win over Thames Valley on June 6, which marked their first defence of the season.
Four New Zealand Under 20s players are included: prop Sefo Kautai is one of three debutants in the run-on team, along with flanker Mitch Jacobson, lock Sam Caird, and fullback Jordan Trainor, now over a leg injury and fresh from playing an Auckland club semifinal with Ponsonby last weekend.
Two other former New Zealand age group representatives – centre Nathaniel Apa and wing Penikolo Latu – are named.
On the bench, Hamilton Marist hooker Steven Misa, Melville prop Josh Iosefa-Scott and Hamilton Old Boys halfback Pele Cowley have all be named for the first time.
New Zealand Universities rep Whetu Douglas will captain the side from No 8 and forms a loose forward trio with Jacobson and James Tucker, who has been released from the Chiefs for the match.
Other notable inclusions are lock Brian Alainu’uese, who will make his first Waikato appearance since 2013 after a terrible run of injuries, and first five Sam Christie, who returns to the Waikato side after two seasons in Italy.
Waikato have repelled four Ranfurly Shield challenges from King Country, the last a 76-0 hiding in 1998.
Kickoff is at 2.35pm on Saturday, with the game televised live on SKY.
Waikato: Jordan Trainor, Penikolo Latu, Nathaniel Apa, Tevita Taufui, Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara, Sam Christie, Harrison Levien, Whetu Douglas (c), Mitch Jacobson, James Tucker, Brian Alainu’uese, Jacob Skeen, Sefo Kautai, Hame Faiva, Tau Koloamatangi
Reserves: Steven Misa, Latu Talakai, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Sam Caird, Murray Iti, Pele Cowley, Matt Lansdown, Sevu Reece
King Country: James Hemara, Paul Olsen, Stephan Turner, Gilberto Pavan, Dean Church, Whakataki Cunningham, Zayn Tipping, Rob Sherson, Sam Mason, Anthony Wise, Aarin Dunster (c), Gene Waller, Steve Te Moananui, Sean Wanden, Carl Carmichael
Reserves: Josh Davis, James Ritchie, Adam Morris, Stevie Henry, Michael Foden, Kieron Rollinson, Te Waiti Mareikura, Thomas Orr