By Scott MacLean
After the debacle that was the 2014 ITM Cup campaign, Wellington’s provincial side desperately needed to not only win back the fans, but also their way into the top tier after the humiliation of being relegated. The somewhat controversial appointment of Earl Va’a as coach to succeed Chris Boyd only added to the angst.
Through four games though the signs were very promising, tipping over the champions Taranaki, pitching successive shutouts over North Harbour and Northland and giving Southland an absolute spanking in Invercargill; however the last two have been middling at best, comfortably handled at home by premiership leaders Tasman, and then coughing up a 13-point lead in the last five minutes to Otago on Thursday night. Which of course we can’t forget isn’t the first time a Dunedin-based side has been successful at Westpac Stadium this year.
The Good: Beating Taranaki in New Plymouth in the opener (though that result pain this scribe). The defensive efforts in blanking North Harbour and Northland (though… they are North Harbour and Northland), and the hammering of Southland. Ardie Savea proving he’s absolutely riotous at this level at times. The continuing emergence of the athletic freak that is Vaea Fifita. Having a first-five who knows what he’s doing in Jonathan Bentley (remember last year’s revolving door at the position that concluded with Willie Ripia!). Reggie Goodes’ stock continuing to rise. Seeing Cory Jane and Jeremy Thrush in provincial colours.
The Bad: Some of the absence of basic skills, like catching and passing. The consistent errors after building pressure in the opposing 22m. Giving up 73 points in the last two games after just 17 in the first four. Frae Wilson at halfback – the side runs much better when Tomasi Palu comes on, but even more confusing is leaving Adam Deck, a form player of the club season, out completely. The lack of depth in midfield exposed by Shaun Treeby’s injury. The inability for the hookers (chiefly Leni Apisai) to throw straight and accurate at lineout time.
The Ugly: Treeby’s leg break. The second half against Tasman. The first 15 and last five against Otago – how a side with experienced heads like Jane and Thrush lets that happen is beyond me. The bench selections and management – having two opensides (Adam Hill and Greg Foe) as the two non-front row options and no power-type number 8 ball-runner option, the baffling choice of 19 year-old Joe Apikatoa (though no fault of him) as the bench tighthead when he doesn’t play there for his club nor has much experience from college, when a veteran and proven option like Whetu Henry is whiling away in the B squad; and the preferred outside back replacements seem to hail from a certain school the coach was previously employed at.
Where to next? A trip to Hamilton awaits next Sunday after a week off kicks off the dreaded compact stretch with a 3-day turnaround to host Hawkes Bay, then off to Tauranga to face Bay of Plenty just four days after that before the season concludes with a home tilt against Manawatu. Its hard to see Wellington missing the championship semis given how poor Northland, Harbour, and (to a lesser extent) Southland are this year, but they need two wins minimum from those four even just for the confidence. For now though, that minimum goal of a return to the Premiership might be on shaky ground.
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