WelTec Premiership wide open this year

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After three weekends of grading and festival matches college rugby competition rounds kickoff on Saturday across the region.

At the sharp end, the WelTec Premiership could be wide open. Last year's top four - winners St Pat's Town, Scots, Silverstream, and Wellington College - have spent the past three weekends battling the four Hurricanes region boys schools from the Super 8 competition and all had their struggles, particularly against an outstanding looking Hastings BHS side.

St Pat's Town go into the season as defending champions for the first time since 1996, but gone are the likes of Jack Nelson-Murray, Zac Donaldson, and Hannon Brighouse who were influential in that success. Early season has seen them beat St Bede's College and start the Tranzit Coachlines campaign with a win over Gisborne BHS, but were well beaten by Hastings before a narrow loss to Palmerston North BHS last weekend. NZ Schools prop Xavier Numia, flanker Tom Horan, midfielder Billy Proctor (younger brother of Matt and James), and wing/fullback Siosaia Paese will be their central players.

After two successive National Championship game appearances it looks like a rebuilding year for Scots College with Peter and Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Alex Fidow, and Jarimar Schuster all having moved on, and so far they've been well-beaten by St Kentigern College in their annual quad and by Hastings and Palmerston North in their Festival matches, but did take a win against Napier BHS. No. 8 Jack Loader and utility back Connor Garden-Bachop will shoulder a significant burden for Sam Rasch's side, with prop Werdna Maligi and midfielder Tai Neli making the move to Strathmore from Aotea.

Surprisingly, and perhaps somewhat controversially, Silverstream missed out on the local final last year, beaten by Town after handling them in their annual traditional only 10 days earlier. NZ Schools players Losi Filipo and Asafo Aumua, Barbarians rep Josh Brown, and elusive midfielder Tarquin Alatipi are amongst those no longer involved; and Tim Mannix takes over the coaching reins from Rob Ackerman. Their Tranzit Coachlines campaign saw them beat Napier and lose a close one to Gisborne before an understrength side were thrashed by Hastings, but put up a strong effort in yesterday's narrow loss to New Plymouth BHS. Their players to watch include loose forwards Jarrod Harawira and Chris Aumua, and backs Albert Polu and Todd Svenson.

Wellington College have been below their usually excellent levels in recent times. Last year was perhaps something of a rebuilding year, and that may extend into this season, centred around the hugely promising lock/blindside Naitoa Ah Kuoi. Others to keep an eye on are fullback Reece Plumtree, halfback Adrian Seumanufagai, and prop Perry Karati, while Toka Sopoaga becomes the fourth of the brothers to turn out for the first XV and will occupy the #10 shirt previously worn by Lima. Their season began with a resounding win over Manawatu school Tu Toa, followed a win over Napier straddled by losses to Palmerston North and Gisborne in the Tranzit Coachlines series.

The door is potentially ajar for Rongotai College to force their way into the top-four. Comfortable winners over Paraparaumu and Aotea in grading (Hutt Valley HS defaulted to them); they did suffer a last-minute preseason loss to Nelson College in their other match of note. They have had few departures from last year's team, with hooker Karl Brownlie, inside back Esi Komaisavai and centre Denny To'o now in their final year at school, so there's also an added burden of expectation that this group that have stayed together will deliver. No8 William Heather is a physical ballrunner, while the midfield duo of To'o and Norman Fatialofa may be the biggest pairing in the grade.

Wairarapa College retained their place after three comfortable wins in grading over Kapiti, Porirua, and Onslow, pitching shutouts over the latter two. After being Premier 2 winners in 2013 and runners-up in 2014, they had mixed success in the top-flight, securing their first-ever win over Wellington College but were hammered in their playoff match by Town. They'll once again look to make Masterton a difficult away trip for visiting sides and try and nab a win or two on their journey's south.

The field has seen two changes from last year's group.

Bishop Viard College - 2015 Premier 2 and Co-ed Cup winners - eked out a close win over neighbours and premiership incumbents Tawa last Saturday following earlier wins over Wainuiomata and Newlands (by default), completing a rise from Premier 3 to the top flight over the past three seasons. They have several returnees from last year, plus the core of players that formed their well-performed Under 15 team from two years ago, but injuries are already a problem losing three in last night's Beard Trophy and Coed Cup win over Aotea. Flanker Adam Tone and speedster Roy Maiava are amongst their players to watch.

St Bernard's narrowly lost that Premier 2 final, but have a young squad after significant turnover from last year's team. They've perhaps exceeded even their own expectations in returning to the Premiership after spending two of the past three years in the second-tier, and seem likely to struggle. Like Viard, they beat a 2015 Premiership side, in their case Hutt International, after earlier wins over Upper Hutt and Taita.

The first round of matches is highlighted by the rematch of last year's final between St Pat's Town and Scots at Evans Bay. Silverstream make the trip across the Haywards to visit Bishop Viard, with Rongotai hosting St Bernard's. All three matches kickoff at 2.30pm.

The fourth match is earlier at 1pm, with Wellington College hosting Wairarapa not on their home turf, but nearby on the Basin Reserve, as the forerunner to the Old Boys-University vs Avalon Swindale Shield match.

A tier below, there's been significant turnover in the Premier 2 grade. Hutt International and Tawa come down from the Premiership, while Wainuiomata, Taita, and Paraparaumu have earned a step up from Premier 3 through grading. They join Porirua, Aotea, Kapiti, and the Silverstream and St Pats Town 2nd XV's in the 10-team field.

Two games in this grade are part of the College/Club day detailed in yesterday article. Hutt International and Wainuiomata meet on the #1 ground at the Petone Rec and Taita and the Silverstream 2nds play their match at Avalon's Fraser Park, both at 1pm. The remaining three matches are all 2.30pm kickoffs at the schools with Aotea hosting Tawa, Porirua welcoming the St Pats Town 2nds, and Paraparaumu visit neighbours Kapiti.

The remaining College/Club matches are all at lower grades. In Premier 3 Hutt Old Boys Marist hosts the Hutt Valley HS vs Naenae contest on the Hutt Rec's #2 ground, local sides Upper Hutt College and Heretaunga will meet at the Upper Hutt Rams' home of Maidstone Park, and Western Suburbs' Ian Galloway Park with be the venue for the Onslow vs Wellington College 2nds clash, all at 1pm. The Premier 4 clash between the Scots 2nds and St Pats 3rds will be at Poneke's Kilbirnie park, while the Under 80kg matches between St Pats Town and Silverstream's 'A' squad on the SPC artificial turf and Wellington College and Wellington High at Te Whaea are Marist St Pats' and Old Boys-University's contributions to the day.