The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls are still catching their breath from a watershed NZRL National Premiership campaign – but their season still has two bumper home games remaining.
Canterbury qualified for their first Premiership final since 2015 after achieving a round-robin cleansweep with wins over Akarana, Waikato and Counties Manukau, the latter in a historic clash at Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub. The Rockcote Bulls earned the right to host the final but went down to the Akarana Falcons 28-10 after trailing by just two points at halftime.
Andrew Auimatagi’s side are now gearing up for clashes with NSW Country Under-23s (October 12) and Toa Samoa (October 25) at Ngā Puna Wai in a massive double coup for rugby league in the region.
“Having the opportunity to extend the representative programme for the Bulls against two quality overseas teams, one of which is an international line-up, presents a fantastic opportunity for our players to challenge themselves as individuals,” Canterbury Rugby League CEO Duane Fyfe said.
“It also brings a different type of football to test team tactics and provide development for the coaching staff. Being able to host these teams at Ngā Puna Wai also adds to the event.”
The touring NSW Country team sounded a warning to the Rockcote Bulls on Tuesday, walloping a North Island Championship combination 74-6 in Rotorua.
“We’ve got a team of young guys that are still aspiring to play NRL,” said NSWCRL High Performance and Elite Pathways Football Manager Matt Parish.
“We’ve got players with plenty of ability, and the game against Canterbury will be a good test for our guys because they’re going up against one of the best provincial teams in New Zealand. We’re under no illusion as to how tough it’s going to be. It will be a really good challenge.”
Drawing on the best young NSW talent based outside Sydney, the Country players are following in the footsteps of some of rugby league’s all-time greats that have donned the maroon and gold jumper over the years.
No less than 23 members of the NRL’s Hall of Fame hail from NSW Country areas, including Immortals Clive Churchill, Bob Fulton, Graeme Langlands and Andrew Johns.
“New South Wales Country has a really proud tradition of producing really good players, and I’ve got no doubts there’s a few in this side too,” Parish asserted.
“Australia and New Zealand lead the way in rugby league, and in New South Wales Country where these young men are from, we produce over 30 percent of NRL players. Canterbury, while it’s a strong rugby (union) area, is certainly a strong league area as your results over the last couple of years has shown.
“Forging this relationship, maybe you guys can come over to New South Wales and play us over there next time – that would be great.”
Meanwhile, Parish will become very familiar with Christchurch and Ngā Puna Wai during October – the former Balmain first-grader has been Toa Samoa’s coach since 2013. He is viewing Samoa’s assignment against Canterbury as a vital warm-up for their Test against Fiji at Eden Park on November 2.
“The timing has worked out very well, for both teams to be playing one of the top provincial teams in New Zealand,” Parish said.
“It’s a very important game for Samoa ahead of a very important Test match against Fiji. I know the boys are certainly looking forward to getting down there. We understand there’s a reasonable Samoan community down there so we’re looking to engage with those people as well.”
Parish promised fans will get to see a host of NRL stars in the flesh; he intends to field a full-strength side against the Bulls.
“Whoever plays in the Test will be playing in that game. There will be a few guys that won’t be playing in the (World Cup) Nines like Marty Taupau and Junior Paulo, so they’ll be getting plenty of time (against Canterbury).”