After winning the Bunnings Warehouse NPC championship in 2021, the Yarrows Taranaki Bulls are setting their sights even higher this year.
It’s what rugby fans want to hear. A commitment to entertaining, running rugby, and a belief that this year’s Yarrows Taranaki Bulls squad has the skills to deliver on it.
“I’d rather die trying playing positively than resort to risk-free, boring rugby,” says coach Neil Barnes. “We’ll chance our arm to play and it won’t always work, but we’ll win more than we’ll lose I’d think. When you look at the skills and the pace we have in our squad, we’d be foolish to shut it down.”
Such a bold promise is made even more exciting by the prospect of what it could mean under this year’s new Bunnings Warehouse NPC format. Gone is the old two-tiered competition that prevented Taranaki, one of the form teams of last year’s season, from challenging for the top prize.
This year, any team can win, and Barnes wants his players to be excited by that possibility.
“To have a structure where everyone has the ability to win the comp is a massive step forward. We’ve been building a squad for the last few years, and you want to be able to challenge for that overall title. It’s certainly motivating to have that opportunity.”
Under the new competition format, teams are split into two pools based on where they finished on last year’s ladder. Teams play everyone in their own pool once, as well as four teams from the other pool. The only reason they don’t play everyone is there isn’t enough time in the calendar.
Taranaki has been drawn in arguably the tougher of the two pools, alongside Tasman, Canterbury, Auckland, Manawatū, North Harbour and Northland.
The season once again starts at the iconic Pukekura Park in partnership with Forsyth Barr. Last year’s season opener – the first at the venue since 1945 – was a resounding success against Hawke’s Bay, and this year it’ll play host to the first two games against Northland and Canterbury.
“The atmosphere was awesome last year and we loved playing there because the crowd’s right on top of you,” Barnes says. “Combine that with an exciting brand of rugby and it can only be a good day.”
“Pukekura Park has done wonders for our membership base,” adds TRFU commercial manager Jimmy Fastier. “We ended up with around 1,500 members last year, and they’re tracking really well again this year too.”
As well as the first two Pukekura Park games, the Bulls will return to Yarrow Stadium for the first time in three years this season. The Yarrow Stand has been rebuilt and earthquake strengthened, and with the screen and the two end-on terraces open, the homecoming against Waikato on September 3 promises to be a big occasion.
“Yarrow is our spiritual home at the end of the day, and we’re pretty excited to get back out there – especially against last year’s champions,” Barnes says.
“It’s great to be coming back to New Plymouth but we can’t forget what Inglewood has done for us in the last few years either. We’re really thankful for the way the whole Inglewood community embraced us.”
To mark the return, Cleland’s Construction, who ran the strengthening project and is a TRFU match day partner, is giving away 4,000 tickets to ratepayers. Jimmy Fastier says anyone interested in the Cleland’s Community Shout should keep an eye on the Taranaki Rugby Facebook page.
There’s also been another homecoming of sorts for new Taranaki Rugby CEO Mike Sandle. His career was kickstarted when he became manager of the Bulls nearly 20 years ago, going on to manage the Blues and the Black Caps in the years since.
“It’s nice to be home,” he says, in his understated way. “I haven’t been home for a full season for 10 years. We have some really good people that have worked through some tough conditions the last few years and I just want to support them the best I can.
“We’ve been really fortunate that our commercial partners, funding partners and members have overwhelmingly stuck with us. This year it’s Yarrows’the Bakers
30th year since they were first involved with us, which is special, and a number of other partners have also been with us for a long time.”
On the playing side of things, Barnes has named a settled squad that stands out for the number of experienced players returning from previous seasons, as well as seven players named in the first All Blacks squad of the year – more than any other provincial union.
First-time All Blacks Stephen Perofeta and Pita Gus Sowakula have been rewarded for consistent form – Perofeta being named the NPC’s best player last year – alongside Barrett brothers Beauden, Jordie and Scott, Tupou Vaa’i and the injured Josh Lord.
It’s remarkable representation for a smaller union, but it’s a double-edged sword in that All Blacks may not be able to play for Taranaki this year. Barnes is pragmatic about what that could mean for his side.
“Our genuine hope is the guys all get picked to play for the All Blacks, which means we won’t see them,” he says. “Some players might get released to play for their unions, so it’ll be a bonus if we do get them back, but we’re planning to go through the season without them.
“We celebrate the fact that our performances have helped two more guys become All Blacks. The challenge now is to discover the next ones.”
Another feature of the squad is that it’s a 100% local side. They’re all local players from local rugby clubs.
“NPC is a window to professional rugby, and the harder you look, the more you see. With a bit of help, some of these guys can be the best in the country and we’ll give them the opportunity,” Barnes says.
Sandle says that’s only possible with the support of the likes of the Taranaki Community Rugby Trust – a unique charitable trust that funds and promotes community rugby, and this year even purchased its own farm.
“It helps to support eight club rugby development officers who are on the ground for the best part of the season growing the game and creating memorable experiences. We want to pick from within, but if you don’t do any work to grow the foundation underneath you’re going to fall over. You have to grow your own people. It’s a lot more work, but it’ll be worth it.”
The way local players took Taranaki to an unbeaten season last year showed it could be done. The only question is if they can do it again – and if they can, there’s an even bigger prize on offer.
7 August: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Northland, Pukekura Park, 2.05pm
14 August: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Bay of Plenty, Tauranga Domain, 2.05pm
20 August: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Canterbury, Pukekura Park, 2.05pm
28 August: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Wellington, Sky Stadium, 2.05pm
3 September: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Waikato, Yarrow Stadium, 2.05pm
11 September: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Tasman, Trafalgar Park, 2.05pm
16 September: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Manawatū, Yarrow Stadium, 7.05pm
21 September: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Counties Manukau, Yarrow Stadium, 7.05pm
25 September: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v North Harbour, North Harbour Stadium, 2.05pm
1 October: Yarrows Taranaki Bulls v Auckland, Eden Park, 4.35pm
Growing the women’s game
There’s nothing but positivity around local women’s rugby, as the Central Roofing Taranaki Whio line up another season in the fast-growing Farah Palmer Cup presented by Bunnings Warehouse.
The season will be well underway by the time this magazine goes to print, with high hopes the team can build on the foundations of the last few years.
“We see women’s and girls rugby as being a real growth area that provides a really good pathway to professional sport for women within our province,” says Taranaki Rugby CEO Mike Sandle. “There are so many opportunities in that space now, with Super Rugby Aupiki, Black Ferns, Sevens…those pathways are there, and there’s great visibility too.”
The next generation of talent is starting to show its strength, with the Sacred Heart 1st XV making the final of the Chiefs Manawa competition last month and New Plymouth Girls’ High School finishing third.
“There’s some unbelievable potential here,” says Yarrows Taranaki Bulls coach Neil Barnes. “We had a really entertaining CMK women’s club final when Clifton beat Southern, and with the effort that’s being put into the women’s game, there’s no doubt it’ll continue to grow.”
23 July: Central Roofing Taranaki Whio v North Harbour, Gully Ground, NPBHS, 12:35pm
30 July: Central Roofing Taranaki Whio v Tasman, Away Match 2.05pm
7 August: Central Roofing Taranaki Whio v Otago, Gully Ground, NPBHS, 11.35am
13 August: Central Roofing Taranaki Whio v Hawke’s Bay, Away Match 2.05pm
20 August: Central Roofing Taranaki Whio v Northland, TET Stadium & Events Centre, Inglewood 11.35am