Border goes back-to-back in wet and wild Premier final
By Jared Smith
Not the pressure of expectation, or a wild typhoon, or a committed underdog who would not lie down could keep Waverley Harvesting Border from winning back-to-back Tasman Tanning Premier titles, 23-18 on Saturday.
WRFU Finals Day at Cooks Gardens has never seen weather like was experienced during and after halftime of the championship clash – as howling wind brought in heavy rain, upturned chairs and sent the spare balls flying across the pitch.
With the muddy ground already cut up from the Senior final played before it, neither heavy favourites Border nor plucky underdogs Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau could play expansively, but Border did show all their championship pedigree to move the ball while they could and score in the opening seven minutes.
They eventually worked their way out to a 17-3 advantage against the rookie finalists, thanks to strong pressure on Kaierau’s scrum and excellent territory rugby from halfback Lindsay Horrocks and Player of the Day Craig Clare.
The pack drove lock Toby Lennox over the line and then co-captain Angus Middleton was on hand to snatch up a fumbled ball on the tryline and score, with Clare ultimately slotting five kicks from six attempts in the swirling breeze.
But playing in their first grand final since 2011, when several of the team were the young sons of that squad, Kaierau showed great courage and would not give up, as co-captain Ethan Robinson had a fantastic match – showing his team mates how to claim the high ball, taking his turns on the angled hit-ups, and slotting six straight penalties from all angles in atrocious conditions.
Co-captain Joe Edwards protected the ball from his back-peddling scrum at No8 while making some key runs, as did flanker Cade Robinson and locks Josh Lane and Josefa Rokotakala.
In the worst of the weather, Kaierau rumbled up for over 18 phases of excellent ball control to get Robinson in range for another penalty at 17-15 not long after halftime.
But a fumbled clearing kick and then pressure from Clare and his pack, led ably by Middleton, Kieran Hussey and Ranato Tikoisolomone, meant Border were positioned for 57th and 67th minute penalties, as Clare immediately took back the role when reserve fullback Nick Harding came on and had a miss.
They then absorbed Kaierau’s carries to force turnovers, the underdogs rueing dropping the ball after a quick tap near the line, so Robinson ultimately took the chance for his sixth kick to close the gap to five points with four minutes – in the hope they had enough time to get back down for one more crack.
It appeared Border had trapped Kaierau at last, even turning down a kickable penalty to take a quick tap near the tryline, but in a rush of blood while holding advantage, a Border fist thrown at Lane saw a penalty reversal and gave the Whanganui club the last possession.
They tapped and worked their way out to the 40m, but Border finally trapped them for the turnover and the right to join elite WRFU company as repeat Premier champions.
Coach Cole Baldwin was asked in his long career as a player and now coach if he had ever had a match in a virtual hurricane.
“There’s always a first for everything, isn’t there?
“We showed a fair bit of ticker, I thought.
“I thought at halftime when we were up, we were in a pretty good position, but Kaierau come out firing in that second half and held onto the ball, and we just kept giving away penalties and they just kept on taking those three points.
“I’m pretty please with how our defence was, it’s a bit frustrating with the amount of penalties we were giving away, but all-in-all, a proper final and both teams gave everything they had.
“It’s good to be able to get another result for the club and community, so we’re pleased about that.”
Having to overcome a mountain of injuries to his squad this season, with different line-ups every week, Kaierau coach Carl Gibson felt only a couple of key moments had prevented them from making history.
“They were superior in that first half, with those nice little box kicks that Lindsay was doing were just hanging, really hard to contend, and they played off it – good effort by them to do those and get it going.
“But I was so proud of my boys for coming back in that second half and fighting so hard.
“They were in it; they were in with a good shot. Ethan Robinson was kicking outstanding in those conditions – he had a very good game.
“Those boys left everything out there, and that’s all I asked for.
“It’s been a bit of a tough old year, but what doesn’t break you makes you stronger and I think they just showed that – they got big hearts and they had a good crack.”
Clare looked to test Kaierau’s young fullback Ezra Malo early, getting the better of the territory kicking, although both team’s made handling errors in the wet.
Getting a penalty for offside, Border tapped the ball for hooker Ross McDonald, who turned as he hit the defensive line, with the pack then driving to get Lennox over under the heap in the ninth minute.
Ace Malo, Kaierau’s sole survivor from their last championship in 2005, went long at the kickoff and Border were pressured into a mistake, and then got offside in midfield from the attacking scrum for Robinson to close the gap.
Kaierau pulling down a lineout jumper saw Clare step up for an ambitious 40m penalty attempt, but the Cooks Gardens specialist slotted the kick, and then Border latched onto what would prove a decisive bit of fortune.
After returning No8 Semi Vodosese went for a burst, Border tried to free up their 23-tries star Vereniki Tikoisolomone, but the pass towards him went down.
The turbo winger hacked the ball ahead, arriving at the tryline at the same time as Kaierau winger Karl Pascoe, who couldn’t collect it clean in the wet, and the pill squirted away from both diving men to end up in Middleton’s hands, making it 17-3 with Clare’s 22nd minute conversion.
But thoughts of a blowout soon washed away as Robinson raised his team’s spirits with a great 41m penalty, and despite Kaierau kicking out on the full in the swirling breeze, with the Cooks Gardens lights turned on to lift the darkness, their defence held.
Another series of Kaierau carries saw Border overextend for the red-hot Robinson to slot a 37th minute penalty, then right before halftime he added another for a somewhat flattering scoreline given that Border had played the better footy.
But as the storm reached its fever pitch both during the break and once play resumed, Kaierau’s unceasing control of the ball despite hard Border tackling around the rucks was outstanding, with hooker Jack van Bussel then holding the ball for Robinson to slot another kick despite the head wind.
As the wind and rain started to ease back, Border’s determination lifted, as despite Harding’s miss, Kaierau gambled on an attacking grubber and were caught offside, with Clare making them pay, and then when Kaierau lost possession and were pinged again following a Border clearance, the veteran again stepped up to give his side an eight-point buffer.
Edwards nearly broke through down the blindside but winger Harry Unsworth just couldn’t hang onto the offload, then repeated offside calls against Border was followed by backchat, and Robinson took the kick to make it ten straight in the finals series.
A high tackle on Robinson saw Kaierau tap and go from their own half, only to lose it, and Border managed to trap them for the remainder of the fixture, a few nerves aside from the penalty on fulltime.
Border 23 (T Lennox, A Middleton tries; C Clare 3 pen, 2 con) bt Kaierau 18 (Ethan Robinson 6 pen). HT: 17-12.
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GODFREY: Former Whanganui Collegiate 1st XV star Harry Godfrey was named at fullback for the New Zealand Under 20 side to face Cooks Islands on Saturday. Held at Dilworth College in Auckland, New Zealand won 85-0.