Samoans making Taradale the team to beat
Samoan players are spurring Taradale Rugby Club on to success in Hawke's Bay's premier club competition this year, in a region that has had a longstanding relationship with the nation and its players.
Taradale won the Tui Nash Cup on Saturday having gone through the first round of the club season undefeated, and they will be favourites to take out the Maddison Trophy after the second round and finals series as well.
The club brought in four graduates of Mahonri Schwalger's Rugby Academy Samoa for this season; Noel Sanft, Mikaele Tapili, Taimua Malielegaoi and Manu Samoa flanker Iakopo Mapu.
Taradale's Nash Cup win was their first since 2015, and they are now seeking their first Maddison Trophy since 2009.
“This is probably their best chance, and the likes of Iakopo Mapu and a few others from the islands are having a significant impact on the side," said Hawke's Bay Today sports reporter Shane Hurndell.
Hurndell has been covering rugby in the region for 30 years.
He said Mapu reminds him of mentor "Mo" Schwalger, who played for Taradale and Hawkes Bay at the start of his 15-year professional rugby career spent mostly in New Zealand.
“Very physical, good support player, strong on defence, hard runner, that low centre of gravity.
“He might be a little bit short for a loosie, he could follow a similar path to Mo and switch to hooker.
“He’s certainly got everybody talking."
Schwalger said he told 21-year-old Mapu he should play for Taradale when he said he wanted to play the best rugby he could.
“He had a one on one with the Samoan coaches [after touring with the Manu in November], I think they told him he needs to work a little bit harder."
Mapu said he wants to make the Hawke's Bay Magpies side for this year's New Zealand provincial competition, the Mitre 10 Cup, as part of his pathway to the Manu Rugby World Cup squad for 2023.
But Hurndell has heard he will be in the mix for this year's squad as well.
“I think he might be being a bit humble there."
Iakopo Mapu is right amongst the leaders to take out the Hawke's Bay Club Rugby Player of the Year award, and is a part of the Magpies Wider Training Squad.
Schwalger said he is happy with Mapu and the other graduates' progress in their first year overseas.
“There’s a lot of good players here [in Samoa].
“But if you want to be a professional athlete, you’ve gotta breathe the game, nutrition, coaching, trainers and all that sort of stuff."
He said that was the reason he wanted them in New Zealand, which has the highest standards of rugby anywhere around the world.
“To educate themselves, so when they reach that level they understand and make sure they make the right choice.
“Those guys can bring those experiences back here to Samoa."
He said his boys are loving their time at Taradale.
"Taradale is a family-oriented club and that creates a winning environment.
“When they ring me they say they want to live there now, they don’t want to come back.
“‘This is what you call a club."
Schwalger said the feeling is mutual; Taradale have been impressed with their recruits as well.
He said Magpies coach Mark Ozich has given very positive feedback on Mapu, Sanft, Tapili, Malielegaoi and Frank Tupuola (who is playing for M.A.C., alongside former Manu Samoa 7s players Tom Iosefo and Fa'alemiga Selesele) as well.
“He was pretty surprised that these guys were playing the New Zealand system.
“Coaching here, we're trying to make sure that these guys are training and playing that sort of system.
“So when they get an opportunity in New Zealand, the coaches and that don’t need to do a lot of work on that."
Hurndell said Mapu should be a shoe-in for the Magpies, and the others will all at least be a part of other Hawke's Bay representative teams, such as the H.B. Samoa team which has been the best in the North Island for the last few years.