Steamers weigh up positives and negatives

Mitch Karpik was outstanding for the Steamers in 2018. Photo: Chris James.

There was a real buzz of excitement among home supporters when Bay of Plenty led Canterbury with 20 minutes to go at Tauranga Domain in round three of the Mitre 10 Cup Championship.

The opening two rounds had seen the Steamers defeat Premiership sides Taranaki and Counties Manukau in impressive style.

That start, coming after the most competitive Baywide Premier club rugby season in years and unprecedented depths of talent at under-19 level, gave fans plenty to be optimistic about.

But poor options at key moments and the inability to throw the ball in straight to two late attacking lineouts scuppered a rare win over Canterbury, and the season quickly went to custard with six straight losses.

The Steamers won their final two games, but any season they do not make the semi-finals is a poor one.

Injuries affect all teams in the abridged Mitre 10 competition, but it would be hard to find a side hit harder than Bay of Plenty other than Taranaki. 

The biggest loss was inspirational 36-year-old first-five Mike Delany - the grand koru of the team and on-field leader. With him running the cutter, the Steamers had structure and a wise-old head to make the critical calls. His goalkicking was also sorely missed.

The inclusion of promising talent from the national champion under-19 side, notably Kaleb Trask, Cole Forbes, Emoni Narawa and Lalomilo Lalomilo, is a great portent for the future, but most were not supposed to step up this year.

While there is no better place to learn than under the microscope of live television cameras, the lack of experience across the wider Steamers squad showed, with an inability to keep the pressure on opposition teams after starting well in most games.

The win last Saturday against Northland was a prime example. So dominant early on, the Steamers allowed Northland back into the game and only just held on to win.

The player of the year for me was Mitch Karpik. The dynamic, openside flanker may have grown up in Auckland, but he bleeds blue and gold in every match for the Steamers.

The improvement in his all-round game, after working every day at the Chiefs beside All Blacks number one flanker Sam Cane, was dramatic. A few early season hit outs for Rangataua Sports taught him a few things about life at the bottom of Baywide rucks.

His consistency and never-say-die attitude were inspirational to his teammates. Well done Mitch.

Last year Bay of Plenty pushed Wellington into extra time before losing one of the best rugby finals played in the history of NPC rugby. Promotion to the top tier Premiership was the width of the post from a Delany conversion away that night, but it seems so much further away now.

But there are far more positives than negatives looking ahead to next year.

If the rugby gods could give the Steamers some respite from injuries to key players in 2019, the dream of promotion to the Premiership may become a reality.


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