‘Something old, something new’ could be the strategy for how Waikato head coach Andrew Strawbridge assembled his squad for the upcoming Mitre 10 Cup.
While the signings of Liam Messam, Adam Thomson and Patrick Osborne have been previously telegraphed, it’s the players on the other end of the experience spectrum that should get fans through the Waikato Stadium turnstiles in droves this season.
Over two-thirds of the new squad have previously played age-grade rugby for New Zealand with eight being selected in the national Under 20s set-up over the last two years.
That includes props George Dyer, Robert Cobb and Oliver Norris, loose forwards Samipeni Finau and Simon Parker, and backs Rivez Reihana, Quinn Tupaea and Gideon Wrampling.
Notably, four of those players turned out for the Chiefs during this year’s Super Rugby season. Tupaea, of course, was a mainstay in the midfield while Cobb, Norris and Parker were brought into the team late in the season following a slew of injuries.
While Waikato have mostly held on to their key performers from prior seasons, they will have to make do without the likes of Declan O’Donnell, Dwayne Sweeney, Tyler Campbell and Jack Stratton, who all either missed out on selection or have taken their talents elsewhere.
It’s the losses due to injury that will likely hit the Mooloo men harder.
Locks Laghlan McWhannell and James Tucker were named in the Chiefs and Blues squad respectively for Super Rugby this year, but injuries meant they played no minutes throughout their campaigns and also won’t be fit to represent Waikato.
As it was for the Chiefs, the second row could be a bit of an Achilles’ heel for Waikato, with no out-and-out locks selected in the squad. They’ll have to rely on the likes of former Scotland Under 20 representative Hamilton Burr as well as Samipeni Finau and Adam Thomson to cover.
Solomon Alaimalo, who managed just a handful of games for Waikato in his first season with the team last year will again be sidelined due to injury and has not been included in the squad. While Waikato are well-equipped with utility backs who can cover the outsides, new recruit Osborne is the only experienced specialist winger in the team. 20-year-old Gideon Wrampling scored four tries in three fixtures for the New Zealand Secondary Schools side last year, however, and is worth keeping an eye on.
Unsurprisingly, the loose forwards are once again a position of strength for Waikato. Messam and Thomson are former All Blacks while Luke Jacobson will be gunning to earn his spot back in the national side, having been selected for the 2019 Rugby World Cup but having to return home due to concussion.
Mitchell Jacobson, meanwhile, is somewhat of a Waikato stalwart and will likely once again own the openside flanker position this season. The likes of Finau and Simon Parker both spent time in Super Rugby environments this year, with Parker earning a cap for the Chiefs in the final game of the season and Finau training with the Hurricanes.
Jack Stratton, who was the starting halfback for the New Zealand Barbarians in their match against the British and Irish Lions, was probably unlucky not have to picked up a Super Rugby contract at some stage and has headed to Japan. That leaves 21-year-old Xavier Roe and 19-year-old Cortez Ratima – neither who’s played for Waikato before – to contest the scrumhalf role.
Perhaps the one position of greatest depth for the season ahead is first five. While Fletcher Smith will no doubt start the season handling the playmaking duties, he’ll be kept honest by Rivez Reihana, Liam Coombes-Fabling and potentially Matty Lansdown, who’ve all stood out in the 10 jersey during their high school years.
Coombes-Fabling, entering his first year with the team, was named the Player of the Tournament at 2019’s Nations Sevens competition and looks to have a bright future while Reihana played in New Zealand’s final match of last year’s Under 20 World Championship and was again eligible for the team this season.
Waikato have just two current All Blacks on their books, Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown, so there’ll be little disruption to the squad when they’re pulled into the national set-up.
After churning through their Championship opposition in 2018 to force their way back into the Premiership division, last year was unsurprisingly much tougher going for Waikato and while the squad may lack experience compared to others around the country, it perhaps boasts the most young talent.
Waikato’s season kicks off on September 12 against Wellington at FMG Stadium in Hamilton.
Waikato squad for 2020:
Hookers: Sekope Lopeti Moli, Steven Misa, Samison Taukei’aho
Props: Rob Cobb, George Dyer, Josh Iosefa-Scott, Ayden Johnstone, Sefo Kautai, Oliver Norris
Locks: Hamilton Burr, Samipeni Finau, Adam Thomson
Loose forwards: Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Jacobson, Liam Messam, Simon Parker, James Thompson
Halfbacks: Cortez Ratima, Xavier Roe
First fives: Rivez Reihana, Fletcher Smith, Liam Coombes-Fabling
Midfield: Anton Lienert-Brown, Louis Rogers, Quinn Tupaea, Valynce Te Whare
Outside backs: Matthew Lansdown, Damian McKenzie, Patrick Osborne, Bailyn Sullivan, Gideon Wrampling
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