Sunday, February 25

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Buller push shield holders in the mud

Francis Mining Buller have started their 2022 season with a torrid tussle against Seddon Shield holders Marlborough in Blenheim yesterday. The Marlborough region had been hammered with rain over the preceding 48 hours before the match and as such a late venue change was made by Tasman Rugby from Lansdowne Park to Renwick. While the overhead conditions for the game were pleasant, the field conditions were atrocious as the sodden park quickly became a mud bath.

Marlborough flew out of the gates from the first whistle, controlling the ball for the opening 15 minutes and scored three quick tries to stun the Buller side and open a commanding 21-0 lead. Buller were guilty of slipping off some first up tackles which gave Marlborough line break opportunities to which they were good enough to capitalise.

Buller eventually found themselves with some possession after the early onslaught and didn’t need to wait long to get themselves on the scoreboard as number 8 Isei Lewaqai sliced through the Marlborough defence to race away and score. Buller then managed to find some good territorial gains through the accurate kicking from five eight Jack Parker and fullback Jesse Pitman-Joass. Both playmakers kicked 50:22’s to give the Buller pack some respite from the early defensive load and some attacking ball to play with in the Marlborough half.

Parker was able to close the gap to 21-10 after he kicked a penalty goal to go with his earlier conversion. With the momentum all with the Buller side, they again found themselves hot on attack. With Marlborough infringing at the breakdown, Buller were awarded multiple penalties on the Marlborough line. It was Parker who showed some quick initiative to spot the Marlborough side short on the edge as he took a quick tap from a penalty. With space and an overlap out wide, an offside Marlborough player interfered with play which forced the referee’s hand to award a penalty try and automatic 7 points to Buller. This closed the gap to 21-17 as the halftime whistle sounded and Buller were well and truly back in the Seddon Shield challenge.

After the early shock, Buller had fought well to get most of the possession as big ball carriers, Tapi Allen, Te Puoho Stephens and Lewaqai were carrying with purpose and making good metres. When Buller were called on to defend in the second quarter, their tackling was more accurate and some of their defence was dominant, led by winger Mitieli Kaloudigibeci who turned heads with his bone crushing contact.

In the second half, both sides were finding the conditions near impossible to hold the ball for long periods as the ground became nothing more than a pile of mud. Marlborough were dominating Buller at set piece with their huge pack forcing scrum penalties and tight heads. Their lineout was sound and defensively, Marlborough were able to pilfer some of Buller’s ball as well.

It took until the 68th minute before the first points of the second half were scored as the Red Devils used their impressive scrum to push Buller back towards their line. With the scrum about to break up, reserve number 8 Viliami Napa’a was able to quickly detach from the back of the scrum and outflank the Buller cover defence to score and open up a 28-17 lead for the Shield holders.

With handling errors becoming more prevalent as both teams tired, scrums were taking centre stage which suited the home side. With the lion’s share of the possession and territory in the second half, Marlborough were testing the Buller defence, much like the opening stages of the match. To Buller’s credit, they were able to deny any further points to Marlborough and found a late attacking opportunity deep inside the Red Devils half. As Buller marched towards the line and inched closer, Parker was able to locate space across the field where he kicked over to winger Kaloudigibeci who gathered the ball to score. Parker converted to cap off an excellent debut in the Buller jersey for Buller to finish the scoring at 28-24 to Marlborough.

In the end, Buller weren’t able to take the shield back on the bus back however they were able to take plenty of positives from their first game together as a group. In total, Buller had 8 players make their debut for the province who all made a great start in the jersey. Of note was the young White Star teenage duo of Taine Brownlee and Alan Paterson who got their first taste of representative rugby.

Despite having a tough time at set-piece against a much bigger Marlborough pack, the Buller forwards can be well pleased with their effort. Diminutive lock Ben Pratt had his best performance in a Buller jumper with a gutsy 80-minute performance. Front rower Allen was huge in his first outing at this level while fellow prop Tim Dallison had a big game at both loose head and tight head prop and carried the ball well. Debutant Jamie Tinetti at openside was industrious all game and looks well placed at representative level. Coming off the bench, experienced prop Stephen Crackett got some valuable minutes back in a Buller jersey whilst Enoka Love, who was called into the game early to replace injured captain Anthony Ellis can be mightily proud of his work-rate and effort.

The Buller backs were led masterfully around the field by Parker. His connection with second five Logan Heath would be pleasing for the coaching staff. Wingers Kaloudigibeci and Joe Flexman, on debut, got through a power of work despite the sloppy conditions. Iliesa Tora, who was brought into the midfield was dangerous with ball in hand and will be pleased to get a full game under his belt after battling injury throughout the club season. Thor Manawatu showed his full array of skills, kicking off both feet while Pitman-Joass connected well with Parker and controlled play well from the back-field.

Buller head coach Nathan Thompson reflected on the first game by saying “we put a marker down on effort and I am just really proud of their effort today. The group had some early adversity going down 21-0 inside the first 10 minutes and losing our skipper to injury but we responded in a fantastic way that Buller can be proud of”.

Assistant coach Craig Adams said “that sort of performance excites me for what lies ahead for this group. We saw players go to a new level that brought the best out in each other. I’m immensely proud of how the guys responded to the early challenge and I’m delighted for all the boys playing their first game for our province”.

Buller now play Nelson next Saturday in Murchison to finish their pre-season fixtures before starting the Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship on August 20 with a home game against Mid Canterbury.

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