Mitre 10 Heartland Championship kicks off for 2019
The 12 Heartland Unions take the field this weekend to begin their pursuit for the Meads and Lochore Cups in the 2019 Mitre 10 Heartland Championship.
Defending Meads Cup champions Thames Valley kick things off, hosting Poverty Bay in Paeroa tomorrow afternoon.
In what is a big year for Heartland rugby, the competition begins a week before the New Zealand Heartland XV take on Samoa in a historic match at Eden Park.
It also marks the first season that both trophy namesakes will not be on hand to present the silverware, with Heartland stalwart and New Zealand Rugby legend Sir Brian Lochore passing away three weeks ago.
“We have no doubt that Sir Brian will be in the thoughts of many of the teams as they take the field this weekend and throughout the season.
“Having the two Heartland trophies named after two of the greats is a fitting way to honour the impact they had on the provincial game,” said New Zealand Rugby’s Chief Rugby Officer Nigel Cass.
Horowhenua Kapiti are the current holders of the Lochore Cup and will have a tough start to the season as they travel to Ashburton to face Mid Canterbury.
In other round one fixtures Wairarapa Bush host perennial strong performers Wanganui, East Coast travel to face Buller, neighbours go head to head with South Canterbury hosting North Otago and King Country travel to play West Coast.
The Mitre 10 Heartland Championship will run for eight weeks of modified round robin before the top four play Meads Cup semifinals and the next four go to battle for the Lochore Cup.
Semifinals for both Cups will be played on 19 October, with the Finals to be played the following weekend.
Thames Valley showed the benefit of having former French Test player Raphael Ibanez on its coaching staff and it will be interesting to see how that affects their play during the rest of the season.
Buller, who failed to make the playoffs last year, will host East Coast, a side looking to end a 42-games losing streak (their last win was in 2013) and with former All Black Zac Guildford and former Taranaki captain Mitchell Crosswell in their ranks this year they will have every incentive.
South Canterbury, who lost to Thames Valley in the Meads Cup final, will host neighbour North Otago, a beaten semifinalist in the Lochore Cup. North Otago have also had the benefit of a Ranfurly Shield challenge, losing 14-49 to Otago.
Wairarapa Bush face a tough opener when hosting Wanganui. They will be captained by lock James Goodger, who reached 50 games for the Union last year.
A feature of the side is the inclusion of four Tufuga brothers, props Max and Sam, No.8 Kirk and second five-eighths Ueata.
Completing the round will be West Coast hosting beaten Meads Cup semifinalist King Country.
Adding some sting to the round will be the knowledge that missing from the second week of the competition will be players selected in the New Zealand Heartland side to play Samoa in the Pasifika Challenge II at Eden Park next weekend.
Wins on week one could be vital for those teams with several players included in the national side in week two.
The Heartland side selected is based on last year’s form and will be the first international the side has played.
Saturday 24 August
Thames Valley v Poverty Bay, Paeroa
Buller v East Coast, Westport
Mid Canterbury v Horowhenua Kapiti, Ashburton
South Canterbury v North Otago, Timaru
Wairarapa Bush v Wanganui, Masterton
West Coast v King Country, Greymouth