The Rangitikei rises: Hunterville vs Ratana in Senior final

(Above: Surgery on Tuesday night will prevent Ratana’s legendary coach Leon Mason from playing in Saturday’s Senior final.)

By Jared Smith

Great rivalries don’t have to be built on hatred. They’re built on respect, on a respect for excellence.

  • Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University basketball coach.

Tuesday night found the opposing coaches in Saturday’s Tasman Tanning Senior final in very different places.

Having rebuilt Harvey Round Motors Ratana’s self-respect as they try to win back-to-back Senior titles since self-relegating down from Premier, talisman player/coach Leon Mason was preparing for surgery on the bicep tendon he tore off the bone in his team’s July 3 win over Gemini Pepper Construction Kaierau.

Upon hearing that, Kelso Hunterville coach Greg Parkes started re-writing part of the game-plan he was working on to deliver to his squad, preparing his club for an unprecedented 10th Senior final in 13 seasons.

Like Parkes, Mason planned to be at training on Thursday evening, and is looking forward to being back at Cooks Gardens, where last year, even with Covid-19 restrictions on crowd numbers, 200 Ratana fans sounded like 600 with their music, chanting and hakas.

 “The crowd being there attracts a great atmosphere, not just for those playing, but the sport as well.

“There’s no next week, this last game, pretty much everything on the line.”

Last year with some Steelform Whanganui players able to return to their honour their home club, due to no Heartland competition, Ratana were dominant, while motivated to honour the memory of the recently deceased brother of a squad member.

This year, rebuilding the side yet again, after their stars returned to other unions and clubs, Mason said the motivation had just been making their people proud, so to earn another chance at the title was a privilege.

“That wasn’t our dream; it’s just rebuilding the club.

“It’s a great competition for us to rebuild – there’s 2-3 teams that can compete to take out this competition.

“Hunterville, they’ve improved and gained big runners, so it will be very challenging.”

Ali Arc Logistics-DNA Kennels Marist Celtic, with some aforementioned ex-Ratana players, came close to derailing the return Cooks trip with the re-introduction of semifinals – the home side hanging on 18-12 last week in the Pa.

Ratana’s tries came from Eddie Tataurangi and Tex Seduadua, the latter also scoring in the 2020 final, with the kicks by Reihimana Meihana and another 2020 standout in Brooklyn Herewini.

Ultimately, aside from the unfortunate loss of points against Ruapehu on May 8, the only team to stop Ratana’s dream run has been Hunterville – showing they can win ugly by 15-10 in the Pa on June 19.

“It’s just learning, we always judge ourselves as our own worst enemies,” said Mason.

“We gave ourselves a few uppercuts for our performance. Gave away more than we should have.”

Parkes remembers the passion of Ratana’s supporters on WRFU Finals Day – one of Hunterville’s early Senior championships was won as the curtain-raiser to a Ratana victory over Marist in the Premier final.

But those were the days of the Spriggens Park playoffs, and Hunterville have since had plenty of experience in the Cooks Gardens cauldron – which is a unique atmosphere unlike any other club match of the season.

“Don’t underestimate; maybe 80 per cent of these boys never play on a big arena. It may only come around every 10 years,” said Parkes.

“That creates the edge. If they don’t experience that and get excited about it, they never will.

“She’s a wonderful occasion. There will be a slight edge because it’s a final and the anxiety will kick in.”

The key to winning at Cooks, where it feels like halftime comes so quickly and every little moment could draw a loud crowd reaction, is to starve your opponent of possession – Parkes acknowledging a regular Senior fixture offers up 12-14 chances to score, whereas a final might only provide 5-6.

“And that’s a big maybe – we’ve played in finals where you get 1-2 opportunities, and we took one and still come away with the win.”

There were no nerves in the 42-3 win over Kaierau in the semifinal – prop Jamie Brett scoring a hat-trick while winger Mathew Horton grabbed a double.

Veteran back Nick Tipling was available on the bench, but not required so he could make a full hamstring injury recovery – as his Cooks Gardens experience will be invaluable alongside Brett, George Gardner, Scott Illston and Scott Parkes.

They will lend their support to 2021 skipper Seamus Murphy, who will look to lead from the front foot.

“He’s had a roar of a season,” said Greg Parkes.

Kickoff is 12.45pm.

Road to the Final

  • April 17: Hunterville bt Marton 25-0; Ratana bt Taihape 29-22
  • April 24: Hunterville bt Pirates 34-13; Ratana bt Celtic 30-3
  • May 1: Hunterville bt Taihape 26-19; Ratana bt Utiku OB 19-12
  • May 8: Hunterville bt Utiku OB 43-0; Ratana bt Ruapehu 47-22 (win and points stripped for ineligible player)
  • May 15: Hunterville bt Kaierau 42-19; Ratana bt Border 64-0
  • May 22: Hunterville bt Border 69-14; Ratana bt Pirates 59-7
  • May 29: Hunterville bt Counties 34-17; Ratana bt Buffalos 52-5
  • June 12: Hunterville bt Ruapehu 35-19; Ratana bt Marton 64-14
  • June 19: Hunterville bt Ratana 15-10
  • June 26: Hunterville bt Buffalos 29-6; Ratana bt Counties 36-6
  • July 3: Hunterville lost to Celtic 17-12; Ratana bt Kaierau24-7
  • July 10 (Semifinals): Hunterville bt Kaierau 42-3; Ratana bt Celtic 18-12
  • Hunterville – Played: 12; Won: 11; Lost: 1; Points For: 406; Points Against: 137
  • Ratana – Played: 12; Won: 10; Lost: 2; Points For: 407; Points Against: 103