Eight teams will line up on the Jubilee Cup starter's blocks this Saturday from 3.00pm but just two will be left alive on finals day at the Hutt Recreation Ground on Sunday 12 August. In a repeat of last year's finals day, the Jubilee Cup final will be broadcast live on Sky Network Television and the Premier 1 college First XV final will be the curtain raiser.
The 84th running of the Jubilee Cup promises to be as hard fought as any before it. Few fans will be predicting who will make it past the seven-week round robin series and into the playoffs after the just completed Swindale Shield first round turned much of the traditional pecking order around.
While Hutt Old Boys Marist emerged deserved Swindale Shield champions, recent big guns Norths only secured their Jubilee Cup berth in the final week, while multiple champions Petone were only confirmed as starters when they pipped Marist St Pat's in their last game and Upper Hutt in turn knocked out Old Boys University with a late penalty. Upper Hutt got up to finish third, their highest finish since they won the first round in 2005. Defending champions Ories and second-season Jubilee Cup contenders Wainuiomata looked solid in qualifying, while Tawa stormed through to make the Jubilee Cup round after two consecutive years down in the Hardham Cup.
Throw in the Jubilee Cup's prestige and history, the leveling effects of mid-winter rugby and the availability of Wellington Lions representative players for the rest of the season and all the ingredients are there for an exciting, evenly contested second round.
Fitness permitting, most Wellington Lions players will be free to play the entire club season. Key dates to note are the Jubilee Cup final on Sunday 12 August, Lions pre-season games against Manawatu in Wellington on Wednesday 8 August and Canterbury in Christchurch on 17 August and round one of the ITM Cup on Friday 24 August. Additionally, from early September there's a full season of inter-provincial competition and non-competition representative fixtures - so as well as club pride many players are playing over the next several weeks to put their hands up for one of these sides.
As first round champions, Hutt Old Boys Marist go into the Jubilee Cup as favourites to capture the Swindale Shield-Jubilee Cup double, a feat last achieved by Norths in 2010. The Eagles have had little time to celebrate their first round win this week and its straight back into the cauldron and a first round date against arch-rivals and second placed Swindale Shield finishers Marist St. Pat's at Evans Bay Park.
With a legacy of Jubilee Cup success built up over four decades, MSP will be hoping to return to the semi-finals after fifth place finishes in 2010 and 2011. Previously in 2009, MSP won their 13th title - a strike rate of one every three years since the modern Wellington Marist club was formed in 1971, so statistically they're due for another win this year.
With a strong, experienced forward pack, MSP will base their unit of young and hungry backs around their previous Jubilee Cup winning halfback-first five-eighth combination Peter Sciascia and Fa'atonu Fili. Expect them to at least the make playoffs.
Defending champions Ories can't be discounted, and their first round Swindale Shield record of eight wins in 11 games is the same as last year when they went on to win all seven Jubilee Cup round-robin games and also claim the Andy Leslie Trophy as regular season champions. Ories were appearing in the semi-finals for the first time since the Jubilee Cup playoff series was introduced in 1993 and went all the way and beat Norths 40-18 to win their maiden title.
With props Donal McNamara and Whetu Henry leading the way up front, Ories have a well-performing halfback in Sean Hay and pace and experience in the backs in players such as centre Paulo Aukoso, Hayden Whelan, Simon Tevita, Afa Fa'atau, NZ U20 duo Matt Proctor and Ambrose Curtis (upon their return from South Africa) and of course Ardie Savea when available.
Northern United were Jubilee Cup champions in 2004, 2006, 2008 (shared with MSP) and 2010, so will the pattern be continued in 2012? The loss of several players this year such as stalwarts Aki Naikatini and the Palu brothers David and Tomasi (the latter possibly returning for the second round) - to name just four players - and injuries have not made it a vintage year for Norths so far. But they rallied at the end of the Swindale Shield and showed glimpses of old in their round 10 25-13 win over a competitive OBU and then warmed up for the Jubilee Cup with a 75-0 win over Rimutaka. They might have finished sixth in the first round but with 306 points they still had the second best attacking record, behind HOBM with 357.
Despite an injury crisis to their locking stocks, Upper Hutt came through the pack to finish a highly credible third and must be included in anyone's calculations as a semi-final contender.
Home ground advantage will be a big factor for Upper Hutt, who won all their five games at Maidstone Park in the first round. Their key players are halfback Kayne Hammington and Jason Woodward, normally fullback but of late a fill-in at first five-eighth for injured pivot Ben Aoina. Look out for their young inside back on the rise Jason Henry and for lock Christian Lloyd upon his return from South Africa with the New Zealand U20 team.
With an emphasis on a physical set-piece game and committed approach, Wainuiomata bring a touch of old-school rugby to the competition. They have the big ball running forwards to match their style in the likes of lock Shahn Eru and openside flanker Greg Lealofi (injured of late), while their fleet footed outside backs are marshaled by halfback Frae Wilson, first five five-eighth John Monu and second five-eighth Marvin Karawana who are all gamebreakers. Five years on from regaining Premier status, these guys are ready to challenge for the major title.
The stage is set for a dark horse to come storming into contention, and Tawa fits that bill. They play a similar game to Wainuiomata, with a tough pack that take it to their opposition and, when fit and on the park together possess one of the most experienced backlines with players such a player-coach and halfback Steve So'oialo, Willie Lafaele and Junior Togia. Watch out for bruising prop Taniela Koroi and fullback Randall Bishop. If Tawa can maintain their concentration and keep their discipline - which has often been their downfall in close games - particularly in their four away matches they've been drawn, they will be a major threat to all others.
Petone are the eighth placed qualifier but the most experienced Jubilee Cup club of all. Petone, Senior champions 39 times were on the back foot early in the Swindale Shield, losing three and drawing one of their first four games, eventually scraping into the top eight on points difference at the expense of OBU.
The 2000 and 2005 Jubilee Cup champions and 2009 co-Swindale Shield champions reached the Jubilee Cup semi-final stage every year between 2006-2010, qualifying for home semi-finals in 2008 and 2009. Last year they won two games in the second round and finished sixth.
Prepared by Jubilee Cup winning coach Frank Rees and with several Jubilee Cup winners in their ranks, Petone cannot be discounted. There's too much experience in their ranks in players such as lock Chris Molenaar, midfielder Cam Incledon and workhorse flanker Mateaki Kafatolu for the Villagers not to be there or thereabouts in several weeks. Utility inside back Jared Kahu is a key player for them, while they've recently welcomed back outside back Tomasio Alosio from a stint in Australia.
In a key first round match this week, Petone travels to Lyndhurst Park to play Tawa. Just three weeks ago Tawa beat Petone 30-13, so this promises to be a big litmus test for the Villagers in the second round, while also confirming or otherwise whether Tawa are the real deal or not.
In the two other first round encounters, Wainuiomata will be out to repeat their 37-20 first round win over Ories when they meet at William Jones Park, as will Upper Hutt against Norths at Maidstone Park after beating them 46-34 back in week one.