Waitohi, Central in epic face-off
The cream has clearly risen to the top of the Marlborough premier club rugby competition with the top of the south's two leading clubs set to square off again tomorrow. Sports editor Peter Jones looks back at the past and ahead to the immediate future.
The best of Marlborough, and Tasman, club rugby will take centre stage at Lansdowne Park in Blenheim tomorrow.
Crafar Crouch Waitohi and Biddy Kates Central, who finished one and two respectively in the Bayleys Tasman Trophy competition, will do battle for the Marlborough premier title, a prize the two clubs have completely dominated over the past five years.
The Blues are the reigning champs, having beaten Moutere in last season's final, and they also wore the premier crown in 2009 and 2010. Waitohi were champions in 2011 and 2012. Between them the two clubs have set the bar for excellence at club level, and this year took it to another level. The Tohis' Tasman Trophy dominance sees them enter tomorrow's decider as slight favourites.
They also own a better head-to-head record in 2014, drawing 23-23 with Central at Lansdowne Park in March, then tipping the Blues over 36-18 at home in May.
Countering that, Central bring a rich vein of form into the final. They haven't lost a game in any competition since going down to Waitohi and are on a tryscoring roll at the moment. Prior to disposing of Harlequins 64-5 in their semifinal, they trounced Stoke 93-0, tipped over Kahurangi 25-5 and shrugged off Moutere 58-7.
But, more often than not, finals are decided by defence, a fact not lost on Waitohi head coach Tonga Taumoefolau.
"We are confident in our defence," he said. "It's been a real plus for us. Our wide defence has really come on.
"If you look at our stats, we've played the Nelson club finalists Wanderers and Waimea and kept Wanderers scoreless and held Waimea to one try against us. We have also outscored Central in games between us so . . . we've got good confidence in our defence."
Finals experience is also a major factor, both sides fielding players with plenty of that.
"Probably half the team have been in a final before, and we of course look to those guys," said Taumoefolau. "But to be honest we've been in a final for the last five weeks. Knocking over Harlequins at home, taking the Tasman Trophy - they have all been big finals for us.
"A win would be the icing on the cake for this team, and what they have achieved all year. But Saturday is just business for us . . . over the last couple of weeks we've just taken care of the little things in our game, the basics, making sure that's crisp and we can maintain ball, things like that. Just fine-tuning the 1 per centers.
"The strength of our team has been the team effort. We haven't had one or two guys doing it by themselves. It has had to be that way for us."
While concentrating firmly on his side, Taumoefolau understands what Central bring to the table.
"They have got strike power everywhere. I think everybody knows what Central brings. They try to play an expansive game. We respect those guys. I just think it's going to be a hell of a final. It's great that it's one and two in Tasman up against each other on this side of the hill."
A key factor in the Waitohi side, as always, is family. Four sets of brothers will wear the yellow and black strip tomorrow - Les and James Ivamy, Kenneth and Daniel Karena, Henry and Jack Evans, Chris and Jayden Goodyer.
"That makes a big difference," said their coach. "Waitohi are lucky to have a family-orientated team, epitomised by those sets of brothers, that originate down there. They have grown up with Waitohi rugby, following their fathers, uncles and such like. It's in their veins . . . they are a bit isolated in Picton and Waikawa, their culture is not influenced from the outside, and that's a big strength."
But Central, tagged "the Blues Brothers" in some quarters, also have siblings in their mix. Quentin and Jesse MacDonald, plus Johnny and Fo'ou Tiueti, provide the family ties among a side desperate to finish the season on top.
"We certainly don't want Waitohi to take everything," said head coach Steve Crockett. "We've built a pattern of play that we think is working well. For 40 minutes last time [we played Waitohi] we went off the boil and it cost us, we're very mindful of that.
"We also have to get parity in the scrums for a start. We are quite confident in our lineout . . . and our play at the breakdown, but know we may have to adopt a tighter game at times."
Although they were well in control for most of their semifinal, Crockett knows tomorrow's challenge will be vastly different. "Our focus at training has been about putting that game behind us and knowing that that isn't going to happen again, as much as we would like it to.
"But common sense suggests we are going to need to be more physical and match the size and strength that Waitohi have shown all season."
Crockett is also thankful for the finals experience of players such as Onolevu Temu, the MacDonald brothers, Reyne Volavola, Daniel Crockett and Ra Tamati, cornerstones of the club's success in the past five years.
"That is a plus. We don't need to remind them what finals footy is all about. They are very clear about that. They know how to win finals, but they are still hungry, they want another one."
Both sides are expected to be relatively similar to those that won their semifinals in such dominant fashion. Changes are afoot in the Blues' backline, however, with Tamati expected to start at halfback and Gareth Smith at first-five, pushing Jeremy Manning back to fullback. Up front prop Riley Luke is bracketed with Johnny Tiueti.
Crockett explained the Manning switch. "Jeremy often slots into first receiver anyway, and he provides such good communications at the back. Nick Malins [who moves to the bench] has been playing really well, it was a tough call."
Taumoefolau admitted there were a couple of pre-final concerns in his camp, but hoped to start with the XV that took out their semifinal.
While many may suggest this match may be a clash of opposing styles, the Tohis' forward strength versus the Blues' wide-ranging game, that would be much too simple. Waitohi's backline deserves more respect, as do Central's forwards.
These sides have fought many epic battles in recent years. Tomorrow's encounter shapes as one of the best.
- The Marlborough Express