All Black returns for Taranaki in homecoming match

Tupou Vaa'i runs the ball during a game against Hawke's Bay last season.

Masanori Udagawa / Getty Images

Tupou Vaa’i runs the ball during a game against Hawke’s Bay last season.

Taranaki All Black Tupou Vaa’i will return for Taranaki in the first match back at Yarrow Stadium since 2019.

The 22-year-old lock slots back into the starting lineup to play Waikato on Saturday afternoon.

The selection is timely for Taranaki coach Neil Barnes who is one lock short after an early season-ending injury to Stan van den Hoven against Bay of Plenty a fortnight ago. Mitch Brown is also missing from the playing 23 after leaving the field at halftime against Wellington.

It will be Vaa’i’s first match for the Bulls since last year after he was not selected for the All Blacks’ second test against Argentina in Hamilton.

Stephen Perofeta isn’t wanted by the national selectors either and is unavailable for Taranaki, despite playing 50 seconds in his first test last week. Instead, Tukapa’s Issac Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, older brother of Jacob, will make a start at 15 in his debut match.

After withdrawing from the first match against Northland, Matty McKenzie will make his return via the bench.

Daniel Waite gets the nod at first-five eight for the injured Jayson Potroz, a familiar position when he plays club rugby for New Plymouth Old Boys. Kini Naholo makes a start on the wing.

Taranaki Rugby chief executive Mike Sandle said there was a lot of excitement being back at the Bulls’ “spiritual home ground”.

When the East and West stands were deemed earthquake prone in 2017 and 2018, Taranaki Rugby were forced to improvise so the team could continue to use the field and lights.

Taranaki played at TET Stadium in Inglewood for the 2020 and 2021 seasons while construction took place at Yarrow Stadium.

Now, the West Stand has been repaired but spectators won’t be covered after delays in completing its roof.

Saturday afternoon’s match will also test the new hybrid-turf’s first game, with rain forecast. The pitch is a blend of natural turf and artificial fiber woven into the ground. The combination will give the pitch a much longer lifespan, shorter recovery times after games and friendlier for the environment.

The Ryan Wheeler Memorial Trophy is on the line, which is played between the two provinces. It was named after Wheeler, who played 55 games for Taranaki and 19 for Waikato between 1993 and 1999. In 2000, he died unexpectedly in Sydney aged 27.

Sandle said the Bulls look forward to defending the trophy in front of Wheeler’s father John and some close family friends.

“Playing traditional rivals Waikato is the perfect match to celebrate our homecoming and the occasion means a lot,” he said.

A win will keep Taranaki in touching distance of the top four in the evens conference standings.

Kickoff is at 2:05 pm.

Taranaki team to play Waikato: Issac Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Kini Naholo, Daniel Rona, Teihorangi Walden, Vereniki Tikoisolomone, Daniel Waite, Logan Crowley, Pita Gus Sowakula, Michael Loft, Kaylum Boshier, Tupou Vaa’i, Jesse Parete, Donald Brighouse, Bradley Slater, Jared Parete. Reserves: Ricky Riccitelli, Mitch O’Neill, Kyle Stewart, Mickey Woolliams, Scott Jury, Liam Blyde, Meihana Grindlay, Matty McKenzie.

– This content has been brought to you by Sport News Taranaki.