After four seasons of make-shift plans, 2023 heralds the start of a more settled era for the Yarrows Taranaki Bulls. Returning home to Yarrow Stadium, retaining most of last year’s players and celebrating long-standing Principal Partner Yarrows the Bakers’ 100th year in business, provides the team with a stability that’s been missing in recent years.
The Yarrows Taranaki Bulls have a score to settle in 2023. A largely settled squad is well into preparations for the Bunnings Warehouse National Provincial Championship season on the back of a challenging 2022.
The amber and blacks won just three games last year, despite having a similar squad to the one that went through the 2021 regular season unbeaten. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of putting the pieces all together.
“It’s got a nice feel to it this season,” says Taranaki Rugby CEO Mike Sandle of the NPC season that starts officially in August. “We open with a first home game against Counties Manukau (on Fri the 4th of Aug), straight into storm week against Northland and Manawatū. Then there’s a nice flow through to the end of the season, where we finish with consecutive home games against Auckland and North Harbour.”
Starting the season with three games in 10 days is intense, but it’s a huge opportunity to hit the ground running and build valuable momentum early on.
“All 14 teams are in with a shot – the days of having a split competition are gone,” Sandle reminds fans. “We’ve retained the vast majority of last year’s team and have props Michael Bent returning after a year away and Reuben O’Neill returning from injury. If we can stay healthy this year, we’ll be competitive.”
The squad includes 14 Super Rugby players, as well as seven All Blacks. Many others are standouts from local CMK club rugby in recent months. New faces include New Zealand Under 20s prospects Adam Lennox and Fiti Sa, and at the time of writing there were still a handful of contracts available for local club players.
Sandle says the national selectors don’t pick the Rugby World Cup squad until the second week of the competition, so he’s hopeful of having at least some of Taranaki’s All Blacks available. Plainly, having test calibre players would really help to provide that early season impetus.
As has been the case in recent seasons, the Taranaki squad is made up of local players, something Sandle says is no accident.
THE HOME GAMES
Home games this year will all be played at Yarrow Stadium for the first time in four years. Having increased capacity helps to have a bigger Matahio Family Zone at the northern end of the Noel and Melva Yarrow Stand. It features giveaways for kids, team activations, spin the wheel, corn hole, make a wish for your favourite players and even more family fun.
The season officially starts on August 4, with Clelands Construction Club Day at Yarrow Stadium for the game against Counties Manukau. It’s a double-header that also features the Central Roofing Taranaki Whio women taking on Tasman.
Players will all wear their club socks, and commercial manager Jimmy Fastier describes it as a celebration of the grassroots game.
“We want to highlight everything that’s good about the colour and passion of club footy. There are free tickets for junior registered players, a junior club relay at halftime, discounted $10 adult tickets for club members and a prize for the club that has the most people attending. It’s three weeks after the end of the club season so there’s a real connection there and it’s shaping up as a big community day out.”
“The club game is the heartbeat of the community in our sport,” Sandle adds. “It’s where everybody starts in the game, and this is about recognising all the people that make club rugby what it is. Volunteers, bar staff, gear custodians, coaches, supporters – everyone.”
100 YEARS OF YARROWS
In fact, local celebrations will be somewhat of a theme at the beginning of the season. The team’s final pre-season game against Wellington is being hosted in Manaia, marking 100 years in business for Taranaki Rugby Principal Partner Yarrows the Bakers in the town where they’re based.
“You wouldn’t find prouder Taranaki people,” Sandle says. “They’ve grown their business throughout Asia and Australasia, and it all started in little old Manaia. We always look for ways to get better and improve, and for us, being able to have a Principal Partner with the same sort of values, they’ve been inspirational to us as a provincial union.
“Yarrows the Bakers has been involved with Taranaki rugby for 30+ years, and that’s quite unique as far as provincial rugby in New Zealand goes. They’ve been such a loyal partner; we’ve got a great relationship and we’re really excited about helping them to mark such a significant milestone.”
Jimmy Fastier says the game against last year’s Bunnings Warehouse NPC champions and Ranfurly Shield holders Wellington will be a true nod to the historic roots of the game in south Taranaki.
“We’ve themed it around the Waimate Rugby Club, which was really strong in Manaia back in the day,” he says. “The Waimate Buffalos were well known, and the club amalgamated with Athletic and Hāwera to form Southern in 1994. We’re bringing back a one-off, locally inspired jersey in their honour, and it’ll be a sea of blue and black hooped Waimate jerseys at the Manaia Domain on Saturday July 29.”
“Yarrows has come to us for a long time, so it’s nice to be able to return the favour and take rugby to their backyard,” Sandle adds.
He gives credit to South Taranaki District Council and the Southern Rugby club for making the day possible, with several volunteers pitching in to make it all happen.
Being the last pre-season game before the season starts, both teams are expected to select strong line-ups and play an attractive brand of rugby.
This is just one of a range of community activities and initiatives the Taranaki Rugby Union is involved with, with the Taranaki Community Rugby Trust (TCRT) a big enabler in the community game.
FUNDING COMMUNITY RUGBY
Since originally leasing the Beach Energy farm in 2008, the Trust achieved ownership of its second lease farm in 2022, milking 823 cows across the two properties and running 177 heifers on an FBT/OSFLO farm lease. From these activities, TCRT has now distributed almost $1 million to community rugby in Taranaki, funding the likes of grassroots rugby clubs and referees across the region.
Among the recipients is the RDO programme, where four full time Rugby Development Officers work around Taranaki to support and grow junior rugby. RDOs cover 90 schools, each visiting two per day during the school term to teach skills and encourage participation.
Another popular initiative is Taranaki Rugby’s Planting Trees for Tomorrow programme, which is run in partnership with Todd Energy. Yarrows Taranaki Bulls players will join students from Matapu and Manukorihi Schools to plant native trees in North and South Taranaki in the coming months.
Central Roofing Taranaki Whio looking to build on foundations
2022 was arguably New Zealand’s biggest ever year for women’s rugby, highlighted by the Black Ferns’ World Cup victory at a sold-out Eden Park. There’s a lot of talk about the momentum in the women’s game, and that’s been observed in very real terms around Taranaki.
Playing numbers in club rugby are up, the local CMK club rugby competition welcomed a women’s team from Okaiawa, and the game continues to build. Halfback Iritana Hohaia headlines the Central Roofing Taranaki Whio squad after earning a full time Black Ferns contract through her form with the Hurricanes Poua in Super Rugby Aupiki.
The team has a new coach in former Yarrows Taranaki Bulls loose forward Maifea Maifea, and Lance White joins established assistant Kerry Eynon alongside him. The wider training group has built continuity throughout the year already, with regular sessions on top of a strengthening club competition.
“We see small gains across the board with the Whio,” Mike Sandle says. “They were competitive last year and played some good rugby; a really attractive brand, lots of young talent with another year’s experience, supplemented with some of the experienced players that are coming back.”
Sandle points out the rise in popularity of the women’s game is not just among school players – he says it’s not unusual to see women playing for the first time in their 30s.
“The growth in participation in the girls’ space is something we’re really excited about. There are new players coming in at every age level across the board – the talent is really building, and the result is club and provincial competitions that are exciting and entertaining.”
Where the men’s Bunnings Warehouse NPC has moved to a one division format, the women’s Farah Palmer Cup remains split across a premiership and championship. The Whio are in the championship division and start their season on July 23 against Manawatū at Yarrow Stadium.
RWC 2023 — All Blacks Pool Play (NZ time)
9th Sept @ 7am — All Blacks v France
16th Sept @7am — All Blacks v Namibia
30th Sept @ 8am — All Blacks v Italy
6th Oct @ 8am — All Blacks v Uruguay
14 & 15 Oct — Quarter-finals
20 & 21 Oct — Semi-finals
27 Oct — Bronze final
28 Oct — Grand Final