Canterbury Rugby League entered a new era on Saturday courtesy of the first matches played at the code’s new home, Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub.
Blazing sunshine – rather than the forecast rain – greeted the crowd, which pushed towards the 1000 mark.
The opening encounter was a women’s trial requested by the Warriors’ NRLW coaching staff. Canterbury’s own Sui Pauaraisa was a star attraction, along with fellow Warriors and Kiwi Ferns reps Lorina Papali’i and Georgia Hale, who made the trip from Auckland for some game time against the South Island-based triallists.
Warriors women’s coach Luisa Avaiki was impressed with the quality of the trial and the depth of talent on display.
“One of the main objectives was to see the type of players we have in the south and to give those girls that opportunity,” said Avaiki.
“I know that there’s some girls in there that haven’t played rugby league but play other sport and want a chance to try and put themselves forward to make the Warriors team. We wanted to see what the talent was like across the country.
“It’s great, too, that (Hale and Papali’i) get the chance to come down here and play alongside the Canterbury women.”
The Vodafone Warriors Intrust Super Premiership team carved out an impressive 40-24 victory over a gallant Rockcote Canterbury Bulls line-up in the main fixture. The Vodafone Warriors scored 10 tries to six (no goalkicks were taken) in an entertaining showdown.
The youthful Vodafone Warriors’ speed and athleticism saw the visitors dominate the middle stages of the contest, before a late Bulls rally added some respectability to the scoreboard
The Rockcote Bulls posted first points in the 11th minute, with Vinnie Paul climbing to claim a bomb and dive over out wide. The hosts led 4-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Kayal Iro opened the Vodafone Warriors’ account with the first of his two tries in 23rd minute, while Canterbury product Patrick Elia bagged the first half of his try-double soon afterwards following a freakish bit of aerial work from winger Setu Tu.
Kalani Pewhairangi-Charlie and Iro scored to give the Vodafone Warriors a handy lead but Jope Tagicakibau responded for the Bulls after an offload by teenage forward Caius Fa’atili, who was outstanding in his senior representative debut.
Elia’s second try and a kick-and-chase effort from halfback Casey Smith took the Vodafone Warriors out to 28-8 before a barnstorming four-pointer from big Bulls winger Ben Ilalio in the 56th minute.
Tries to Vodafone Warriors trio Preston Riki, Israel Ogden and Tevita Mikaele put the result beyond doubt at 40-12.
But Canterbury found another gear inside the final 10 minutes. Toi Sepuloni’s determined charge was the first of three late unanswered tries the Bulls scored, including the highlight of the afternoon: 39-year-old stalwart Corey Lawrie slipping a gem of an offload for Fa’atili to storm 30 metres to the line. Paul Sauni notched the last try in the 77th minute.
Halfback Brad Campbell was named Canterbury’s player of the day while front-rower Clayton Williams took the corresponding honour from the Vodafone Warriors side.
Rockcote Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi took plenty of positives from the rare early-season hit-out, particularly given the quality of the opposition and the way his charges finished.
“I was really impressed by our boys today, we were up against a fast and exciting team in the Warriors but we definitely competed hard, hung in there and finished the game off strongly,” said Auimatagi.
“Tevin Arona and Brad (Campbell) in the halves got us off to a flying start… I was impressed with the way the combinations came together.
“(The Warriors) guys are full-time trainers so it was awesome for our guys to compete and gauge where they were at compared to those boys.”
Former Kiwis captain Nathan Cayless was similarly satisfied after his first competitive match in charge of the Warriors ISP outfit.
He believes several tyros – virtually all of whom are still eligible for Jersey Flegg (Under-20s) football in 2019 – put their hands up to see regular ISP action this year.
“It was a really young squad that came down here and we put the challenge on them,” said Cayless.
“We knew it was going to be tough, Canterbury have got a very experienced team and they played some really good footy at the back-end of the game. That was a little bit disappointing from our perspective, but I thought physically our boys were really good.
“I really wanted to see how they measured up against older, harder, stronger men and I thought they held their own. Canterbury are a good side with some good players and a good coach. It was a really good place to come down and have a real tough trial.”
The day certainly whetted the appetite for a huge year of rugby league at Ngā Puna Wai, which drew universal praise for its first hit-out.
The Rockcote Bulls will be back at the venue in September, hosting North Island rivals in the NZRL National Premiership.
“It’s awesome – great fields and it’s going to be a great facility for our game for many years to come,” Auimatagi enthused.
Match details | Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub, Christchurch
Vodafone Warriors 40 (Kayal Iro 2, Patrick Elia 2, Preston Riki 2, Kalani Pewhairangi-Charlie, Casey Smith, Israel Ogden, Tevita Mikaele tries).
Rockote Canterbury Bulls 24 (Vinnie Paul, Jope Tagicakibau, Ben Ilalio, Toi Sepuloni, Caius Fa’atili, Paul Sauni tries).
Vodafone Warriors | Israel Ogden; Edward Kosi, Patrick Elia, Tevita Mikaele, Setu Tu; Kayal Iro, Casey Smith; Wesley Veikoso, Tyler Slade, Clayton Williams; Havi Tupouniua, Paulos Latu; Phillip Makatoa. Interchange: Richard Toai, Kalani Pewhairangi-Charlie, Preston Riki, Emmanuel Tuimavave-Gerard, Junior Pua, Toni Tupouniua, Tahi Baggaley.