How quickly 12 months rolls around. This time last year the Cambridge Hotel faithful were celebrating a year in which the OBU Premiers had done the unthinkable: locked away the Swindale Shield, Bill Brien Challenge Cup, and Andy Leslie Trophy, qualifying top for the semi-finals. History tells us the team did not let up, crucifying Tawa 50 – 22 in the semi and dispatching Hutt Old Boys Marist 32 – 19 to win their second Jubilee Cup in three years.
But times change. Of the 22 players that beat Hutt Old Boys Marist in that final, only half will be available for this finals campaign. The 2018 version is a new crop of Billygoats; different in name but similar in character to those who have worn the green and white hoops before them.
Regular Season Highlights
The Goats (54 points) finished the Swindale Shield as bridesmaids to Northern United (55 points). A shock loss to Wainuiomata in round two proved the difference and left the team’s first-round record at 10 wins, 3 losses.
The penultimate game against Norths was an absolute classic, won 50 – 45 by the home team at Jerry Collins Stadium. That result effectively handed Norths the Swindale Shield. Far from underwhelming, the Goats played some brilliant rugby to send a message to upcoming Jubilee Cup opponents that they were still a force to be reckoned with. Those wins include; 55 – 10 vs. Poneke, 48 – 12 vs. Ories, 32 – 17 vs. Marist St Pats, and 48 – 16 vs. Hutt Old Boys Marist.
The team scored 496 points for, and conceded 273, giving them the best points differential in the competition by far. Mercurial first-five Dale Sabbagh led from the tee with 140 points, while inspirational co-captain Tomasi Palu managed a team-high 8 tries in the first round.
To the Jubilee Cup and the Goats shrugged off the bye to beat Hutt Old Boys Marist, Marist St Pats, and Ories in succession. A penultimate round win vs. Tawa secured a semi-final spot, although they slipped up against Poneke and Norths both in atrocious conditions.
Individually, Argentine workhorse Agustin Escalona currently leads the internal MVP points (20) from wrecking-ball No.8 Teariki Ben-Nicholas (15). Sabbagh added a further 38 points to bring his season tally to 178, while comeback-kid-winger Te Wehi Wright and midfield weapon Izzy Foa’i both crossed for 4 tries.
Semi-final Watch: Ories On A Roll
The challengers this weekend come in shape of a familiar foe – Oriental Rongotai. The boys from the Polo Ground have OBU to thank (which captain Tuakana Metuarau did) for their place in the Jubilee Cup in 2018.
Facing near-certain Hardham Cup status, the Magpies won their remaining games with bonus points and watched with delight as Petone folded against Poneke and OBU, failing to get just one required competition point.
Ories then flexed their experienced Jubilee Cup muscle, beating Marist St Pats, Poneke, and drawing with Tawa. To keep their semi-final hopes alive, they needed to do what no other team had done in the second round: beat Norths. They did just that, with an 82nd minute try to ex-OBU player Alex Ropeti.
The closeness of Saturday’s battle cannot be exemplified more than with a look back to this year’s Jubilee Cup clash between the two sides. At a heavy Nairnville Park, OBU won 18 – 17, shutting down an Ories 70m breakout in the last play of the game.
If you think that result was a one-off, you’d be mistaken. In 2015, when OBU won their first title in 50 years, it could have easily been Ories in the final as a penalty from James Proctor narrowly missed in injury-time at the Basin Reserve. A year later, OBU held on to win 25 – 24 at the Polo Ground but still missed the semi-finals on points differential.
Adding intrigue to the clash is OBU’s decision to shift the game to Hutt Rec away from their traditional home, Nairnville Park. The Goats have an incredible home record, only losing for the first time in three years in 2018. Similarly, both times they have met Ories this year has been at Nairnville and on both occasions the home side was victorious.
However, this tactic is not new. In 2017, with an unbeaten home record, they opted to shift their semi-final to Jerry Collins Stadium. It proved a masterstroke with the dry, wide field allowing the Goats to stampede to a 50 – 22 win. No doubt they hope they can repeat the dose this year, as alluded to by coach Jamie Williams below.
These are assumed from using previous teamlists
Props: Alex Barendregt & Jonathan Fuimaono vs. Xavier Numia & Whetu Henry
Generally speaking, in finals football if you win up front, you win the game. That adage will hold true here.
OBU have been dominant at scrum time all season, and always find competitive advantage from the skillsets of their tight forwards. Barendregt, a former Dutch international player, has found a rich vein of form. His low body position and strength is a nightmare for opposition, as the representative front-row at Tawa can attest to. Fuimaono epitomises the culture at OBU; selfless attitude, hard work, and excellence. The veteran centurion will be crucial in getting the Goats over the gainline. Expect him to be man-of-the-match if OBU get up.
Ories mix young and old. Numia only finished at St Pat’s Town recently, but has played for NZ Schools and NZ U20s since. Noted for his work around the park, don’t be surprised to see him in space out wide. Whetu Henry arguably has the most mana in Wellington Club Rugby. The Ories veteran knows how to win finals matches, and will stack the other 14 players on his back if he has to. It’s no coincidence that Ories have started peaking in the Jubilee Cup where Henry plays his best rugby.
No. 8: Teariki Ben-Nicholas vs. Luca Rees
The clash of two devastating ball-runners promises to be brutal.
In many ways we could let TBN’s record speak for itself. Championship-winning Wellington Lion, two-time Jubilee Cup winner, NZ U20 representative, National U19 winner, the list goes on. His achievements are many but his on-field excellence deserves them. Constantly breaking defences wide open with pace and power, Ben-Nicholas is the x-factor in this OBU side. His carries and deft passing game will light this match up, and if Ories don’t shut him down, they will likely lose.
All teams have a player that is their heartbeat; Luca Rees is that guy for Ories. In 2018, he has comfortably broken the Wellington try-scoring record for a forward with 22 meat pies. A huge man, Rees constantly bends defensive lines with hard-running and clever angles. He is a smart player too, picking his moments for when to launch a big hit or run. If the Magpies get up on Saturday, Rees will have been at the forefront of their effort.
Centre: Jared Verney vs. Malo Tuitama
A crafty organiser with the full package up against raw pace personified.
Yes, you’re right – it is the older brother of last year’s OBU now Lions and Chiefs second-five Regan Verney. However Jared, or Jazza, is well on the way to creating his own slice of OBU history. New to the club in 2018, Verney has become a Mr Fix-It for the Goats, slotting in at 12, 13 and 15. Having played for the feeder club of the North Queensland Cowboys league team, it’s the wide-ranging skills that make his game so appealing. Deft kicks, excellent hole-running, great vision, topped off with exceptional organisation skills, Verney will be the glue that holds together the Goats’ backline this weekend.
Opposing him is Hurricanes centre Malo Tuitama. The schoolboy wonder has, along with Whetu Henry, been a huge reason for the Ories resurgence. The main weapon? Speed. His in-an-away is peerless in this competition as he constantly burns his marker, and creates overlaps for his outsides. Underrated defensively, Tuitama is often the architect of turnovers through well-timed spot tackles. A massive threat for the Goats to nullify, and he will be fizzing at the prospect of a dry Hutt Rec to run on.
The Goat-track To Success: OBU Head Coach Jamie Williams
Not many appreciate the work that goes on behind the scenes of a rugby team. So easy is it to marvel at the ease with which teams play in structures, the moves they pull, and their effectiveness across the park. Behind all the OBU flair sits Jamie Williams; a man fiercely dedicated to the Goat cause.
How’s this for a coaching CV? As head coach: a Jubilee Cup, Swindale Shield, Andy Leslie Trophy, Bill Brien Challenge Cup, WRFU Team of the Year, and WRFU Coach of the Year with a 78% winning record in the toughest club competition in the country. Throw in another Jubilee Cup and Swindale Shield as an assistant, and you start to get a sense of why legends like Tomasi Palu call him the best coach they’ve ever had.
We took time out to ask Jamie a few questions in the lead-up to this week’s semi-final.
Are you confident heading into the weekend? Is everyone fit? Are you bothered that it’s Ories we’re facing?
JW: I’m confident heading into this week. The squad is a lot stronger than the last time we played Ories. [Last time] we had a crisis with the backs, Fui was away, Mangos played centre – so from that perspective we’re a lot stronger. They’re a good match-up for us out of other semi-finalists. Norths were the ones to avoid; they’re drawing on a lot of resources and support, and as we saw on Saturday it’s obvious how winning has changed their mindset.
What was the rationale for shifting to the Hutt Rec?
JW: Nairnville doesn’t suit the type of game we play. Our players are a lot more confident on a hard, wide, fast surface. When you play on a heavy ground it becomes a coin toss and the game can be decided on one or two things. A couple of dodgy refereeing decisions can determine your fate, and essentially you’re putting your fate in someone else’s hands. We want our fate determined by our performance, not the conditions or referee.
Does playing Ories change the game plan? Where are you expecting them to attack?
JW: We’ll prepare accordingly. We’d be silly not to look at their weaknesses and find somewhere to expose them. I think they’ll attack us out wide. They’re fairly confident with their backline, and have some x-factor there. They are well-balanced though – a good scrum, some good forwards, and a strong bench now too.
We haven’t had it all our own way this year. Does that worry you?
JW: No, expectations change. After last year, people expected us to win all the time. But we’ve had a really high turnover of players, plus things that have been out of our control; injuries, Hurricanes allocations, refereeing, conditions – they all play a big part in the result. I work on the philosophy that you need to be 20% better than the opposition, in case those things don’t go your way.
What moments stick out this year, for good or bad reasons?
JW: This year has been a real grind, everything that could have gone wrong seemingly has. We were 30 Premier players down at one point (against Paremata-Plimmerton), which is just phenomenal. Then the timing of NZ Universities this year, other players leaving, just a whole range of things (as above) we’ve hit that hasn’t been ideal.
Finally, what wins finals football? What key elements should we look for if OBU are to win and make their third final in four years?
JW: Our individual execution I think; the accuracy. We’ve got to be better at finishing our chances this week. There will only be a few [chances] and the game will be tight, so it will probably be decided on how clinical we are.