Fresh Border, fearless Ruapehu

By Jared Smith

One team has nothing to lose, the other does not want to see nine months work cast asunder.

Based purely on the 2020 Tasman Tanning Premier points table, the result of Saturday’s semifinal in Waverley between the 9-1 home side and their 2-8 visitors seems indisputable.

But that’s only if the names of the sides were not Waverley Harvesting Border and McCarthy Transport Ruapehu – the latter having come from last spot to keep alive a semifinals streak which goes back 13 years, and would have been over 15 given in 2007 they also qualified for the Top 4 but indiscretions in a match against Kaierau meant they were removed from the playoff.

Nonetheless Border, with a wealth of talent including 11 current members of the 2020 Steelform Wanganui training squad, are fresh as daisies for their home playoff at Dallison Park and looking to make it nine straight wins at the ground, after they did not play last Saturday up Waitotara Valley due to Settler’s Honey Ngamatapouri’s default.

“We had a training camp, so we got a fair bit out of it,” said coach Cole Baldwin about their alternative plans.

“Managed to probably be a week ahead of where we wanted to be.”

It is a little surreal for Border’s veterans to still be playing club rugby in mid-September – normally they’d be nearly halfway through the Heartland Championship regular season by now – but given this Covid-19 truncated year has seen the South Taranaki club avoid significant injuries or unavailability issues, they have rarely been better primed to make their fifth grand final in six years.

“Nothing changes [in preparation], just because it’s a semifinal,” said Baldwin.

“We won’t be taking it easy tomorrow [Wednesday], but there’s a few things to iron out.

“It will be good for our community if we can put out a good performance.

“But also for these guys [the season’s] dragged out nine months – not point in sulking about it, we got dealt the cards we got dealt.

“Every week, we play it like it’s our last week, which is how we’ve approached the last month with the current [Level 2] circumstances.”

While playoffs week is old hat by now for the likes of Lindsay Horrocks (right) , Angus Middleton, Kamipeli Latu and Sam Madams, Baldwin was still looking for the nervous first-time energy from youngsters like lock Toby Lennox, flanker Semi Vodosese and centre Alekesio Vakarorogo, who have all become key players in a short period of time.

“If any of those boys aren’t looking forward to it, they shouldn’t be there.

“There’s not givens in finals rugby, regardless if it’s a semifinal or final, you prepare the best.”

If there is any chink in Border’s armour it has been that two of the traditionally best scorers in Premier – Nick Harding and Craig Clare (left) – have been a little off with the goal kicks in recent games; not that it mattered with the deluge of tries scored.

“Between the two of them, they work it out on the field. It depends on where on the field, Nick’s the longer kicker,” said Baldwin.

With laughter in the background of the phone-line at training up in Ohakune, Ruapehu coach Kim McNaught is nothing but enthusiastic about this opportunity, even against the side that’s beaten them 58-13 and 44-12 this year.

A bonus point got Ruapehu through to fourth ahead of Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist at the end of the regular season last weekend, thanks to clutch wins over both them and Ngamatapouri in the second round of games.

McNaught admits he has a few walking wounded after a physical derby with Byford Readmix Taihape at Memorial Park, a game that just got away from them at 26-17.

“That last penalty, and Tyler [Rodgers-Holden] kicked that goal, we were like, aww [we’re out of the semis], but when we came off they said Kaierau was up [over Marist].

“Finals rugby, everything’s changed, we’re going down there and throwing everything we’ve got at them.

“I read the article where they said, ‘if you want to win, you have to come down here with a good game plan’.”

Under first-year captain Gabriel Hakaraia (Above) , Ruapehu still has big match players like incumbent Wanganui skipper Campbell Hart (below) – a double try-scorer against Taihape – plus nuggety flanker Jamie Hughes and reliable second-five Troy Brown.

The true test will be out wide where young fox-terrier quick winger Takarangi Metekingi (below right) , TeKaokao Kairimu and fullback Logan Blackburn, none tall in stature, will have to hold off Border’s seasoned pros in Vereniki Tikoisolomone, Isaiah Graham-Hooper and Tom Symes.

“Some boys haven’t played a semifinal, six weeks ago we didn’t think we’d make it, we were planning for next year,” said McNaught.

“You want to beat the best so we got to play the best – they’ve got a Heartland team almost.

“Rush [Tikoisolomone], he’s a class player, and I think we learned a lot when we played down there, so we’ll look to contain him.”

McNaught made sure to point out both Blackburn and first-five Kahl Elers-Green have been out practicing their kicks; Ruapehu know what it’s like to win playoffs against Border with three-pointers in the shadow of fulltime.

The draw is

Premier semifinals (2.30pm kickoffs): Border vs Ruapehu, Dallison Park; Kaierau vs Taihape, Country Club.

Photos supplied by Jared Smith, Maxine Hakaraia and Merrilyn George