The Year of the Taniwha.. sort of

It is an odd sort of feeling as I sit and reflect on our 2022 season.

After years of enduring record losses, multiple winless seasons, sitting at the foot or near the foot of the table year after year, and always being pointed at as a team that doesn’t deserve to sit at the top table of NZ rugby.

In 2022, Northland have had their best season they have had in quarter of a century:

  • First time since 1997 we have won 6 games in the RR
  • First time since the NPC began in 1976 Northland beat Auckland in Whangarei
  • First time since 2000 we beat Wellington in Wellington

We pushed a strong Canterbury team pretty close in Christchurch in a quarter final too, and yet, as I do every other year, I sit and think about what could have been!

On paper, when you look over our squad, I think the quarter finals were actually par for the course, with probably one of the stronger squads we have fielded in many a year.

We started the season with a grinding win over Taranaki in New Plymouth that was built around defence, and it was here that this team surprised a few, including myself.

After 4 rounds, Northland had the best defence in the comp, conceding the fewest points and tries of any team, after facing Taranaki, Wellington, Waikato & Auckland no less…all signs pointing to former Northland lock and new defence coach, Marty Veale adding some steel.

Then we had a good 45 mins against Canterbury where a glimmer of another upset was on the cards, and then all of a sudden, all the good we had been doing, vanished, and Canterbury put us to the sword.

This would be the same against NH, a mixed 45 mins, only to be destroyed in the final part of the game, Tasman similar.

We were probably fortunate at this point, in the middle of storm week, BOP strategically opted for an under strength team that we snuck past thanks to a clutch penalty by Dan Hawkins.

Leaving us only to beat a winless Manawatu to take us into the quarter finals, that we did.

But the odd thing for me,is that from that 2nd half v Canterbury, right through to large parts of the BOP game, is that team looked different to the one that had preceded the Canterbury meltdown, we looked like the unorganised, uncoached team that managed a solitary win in 2021.

In the quarter final of the new format, we hit an experienced Canterbury side at home; a team as accustomed to winning finals footy, as we were to not even play finals footy!

After 10 mins it looked like it’d be a rout, but we dug deep and fought, and at about 65 mins, that glimmer of an upset showed itself again, but it wasnt to be.

So again, I go back to the fact that on one hand, this has been our most successful campaign for 25 years, yet I genuinely think we could have done better!

I have not been a big fan of our coaching team (with the exception of Veale who joined this year) from what I see and hear around the place, they certainly don’t seem to have gotten the best out of our squad, and even the region when it comes to players and development!

Too often we looked like a club team in our early season games, minimal fitness, minimal game plan and still getting to know one another and how each plays.

As above, on paper, this team was as strong as we have put together for many years, so in my opinion, a quarter final was where we should have been, but as with previous years of disappointment, you kinda just expected us to under-perform, again.

For the most part, this squad was fitter than we have been for some time, and you could tell where deep in games we were still making tackles and pressuring opposition (previously mentioned games aside)

I think our squad props still lack the required fitness, in particular Corey Te Whata-Colley…I love watching this guy play, he loves the contact with and without the ball, and seems to really enjoy playing yet he seemed to fade in and out of games, particularly scrums, and I put this down to his fitness, O’Donnell and to a lesser extent Puafisi could do with improving their fitness too.

While we have had injuries, most notably Tom Robinson, Chris Apoua, but Josh Moorby for a few games, Matt Moulds, Sam Caird, Jack Goodhue (who may or may not have had an AB recall) spent time on the sidelines, but the gaps were largely filled, and players stepped up.

A few players have had breakout seasons, specifically Rob Rush and Heremaia Murray, Rivez Reihana had easily his best season for us with consistent starts, Jonah Mau’u was very good, Alan Craig finding his feet, Esile Fono and Tama Anderson got a taste for this level too.

Others found a new lease of life, like Jone Macilai, Matt Matich (although it was always there, just not selected last year) and Jared Adams, while others continued to build on previous years work like Tamati Tua, Josh Goodhue & Liam Hallam-Eames, and there was also Ofa Tu’ungafasi who I never expected would actually pull on a jersey, but did, and he certainly wasn’t there making up numbers!

There does seem some good stuff going on at lower levels now too, with decent U16 and U18 rep/development programmes running this year, our dev side had a couple of hit outs, ideally should have had more, but small steps and hopefully this will start to show through in the coming years.

I dont want to celebrate mediocrity but also cant ignore the good we did this year, so all in all, a solid season, with an asterix, as always, about what could have been!

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