A trip to Cooks Gardens to face the unbeaten Wanganui side, who are the current Meads Cup holders and are chasing an unprecedented fourth title in a row, is the reward for Thames Valley, who have qualified for the Meads Cup semi-finals for the first time in the history of the union. Thames Valley registered a five win, three loss record in pool play in this year’s Mitre 10 Heartland Championship to claim fourth place on the final points table and secure their highest finish to date while Wanganui are yet to lose and have only allowed one team to get a four try bonus against them such is the quality of their defence. Affectionately known as the Butcher Boys, Wanganui has an impressive record in the Heartland Championship which began in 2006, appearing in the Meads or Lochore Cup final every year apart from 2013 when they stumbled in the Lochore Cup semi-final against Buller. This will be Wanganui’s thirteenth straight year of semi-finals while Thames Valley last made the playoffs back in 2013 against South Canterbury in Timaru, losing 14-8 in the Lochore Cup.
Wanganui is strong right across the park and has depth on the bench that few other Heartland teams can match. There are a number of standout players in the squad but special mention should be made of Craig Clare, who recently played his 100th first class match after previously representing, Manawatu, Otago, Bay of Plenty and the Highlanders. Clare can play 10, 12 or 13 with aplomb and is an accurate goal kicker, scoring 97 points in 2017 but it is his ability to read the game and keep a calm head that sets him apart. Their coach, Jason Caskey, is a seasoned campaigner who has enjoyed considerable success at the helm and will be eyeing another Meads Cup final if they can get past the visitors from Thames Valley.
The head to head stats make good reading for Wanganui, winning 28 out of 34 games played against Thames Valley since the first meeting with in 1923. They have met 8 times in the Heartland Championship with Thames Valley yet to record a win. The last time Thames Valley won in Wanganui was in 1988, when the Ross Cooper coached side won 31-12 at Spriggens Park.
Injuries continue to dog the Thames Valley side and there are a number of players who are doubtful starters or worse while farming commitments may see at least two more players unable to make the trip to Wanganui meaning Coach Matthew Bartleet may have to call on players from the Development team to fill the gaps. These are the teams supplied at the time of going to print:
Wanganui: K Latu, R Tutauha, V Tofa, S Madams, H Williams, C Hart, J Hughes, M Tafili, L Horrocks, C Clare, C Crowley, P Nabainivalu, K Dadenaise, S Dibben, T Rogers-Holden. Reserves: J Yarrall, G Hakaraia, G Tremaine, A Middleton/ J Campbell, D Whale, K Kuruyabaki, E Robinson.
Thames Valley: T Kutia, G McIntyre, S Tupou, C Dromgool, C McVerry, B Ranga, C Kelleher, A Bradley, B Bonnar, R Boughton, K Lee, S Hill, S McCahon, E Seymour, H Lafituanai. Reserves: S Ouchi, L Easton, K Lewis, B Vincent, M Fisher, N Emery, M Abraham. The referee is Richard Kelly from Taranaki and kick off is at 2.30pm.
The other Meads Cup semi-final is being played in Timaru between hosts, South Canterbury and King Country. This is the first time King Country has made the Meads Cup playoffs but they are not new to finals rugby, having won the Lochore Cup in 2015 and making the final again in 2016 while South Canterbury have always been thereabouts but have only made the Meads Cup final once, losing to Wanganui in 2015.
Top qualifier for the Lochore Cup section is Horowhenua Kapiti and they play Mid Canterbury at the Levin Domain at 1.30pm while the other semi-final is a repeat of last week’s round robin match between Wairarapa Bush and North Otago at Memorial Park in Masterton at the earlier start time of 1.00pm.