Not pretty, but Central too strong
The question was - could Central handle Waitohi's forward power. Could they gain parity in the scrums and deny their opponents' much-vaunted lineout drive?
Biddy Kates Central provided the answer at Lansdowne Park on Saturday afternoon - and it was in the affirmative.
The Blues claimed the Marlborough premier rugby title with a 21-10 win over the lads from Picton, picking up their fifth crown in eight years on the back of a superb all-round performance.
It wasn't always pretty. This match between the top of the south's two best club sides was expected to become a war of attrition, and it was, but the Blues won most of the battles that mattered.
The Tohis' scrummaging power, a cornerstone of their superb season, was largely negated by a Central eight who, while not dominating at the set piece, at least generally held their ground.
Crafar Crouch Waitohi's famed lineout drive was also neutralised, through a combination of foul means and fair, forcing the Picton to adopt a pick-and-go attack. This tactic was also largely unsuccessful, as the Blues defended their goal-line with spirit and skill.
The big moments also largely belonged to the Blues. Their two tries were both the result of concerted pressure, followed by quick hands to an unmarked player on the flank. And both came at highly opportune moments, the first to flanker Matt Gibson nine minutes before the halftime break and the second, to left winger Willie Umu, four minutes after the resumption. A penalty goal to Ra Tamati straight after Waitohi had scored their only try was also particularly timely, immediately knocking the wind out of the Tohis' sails.
There were many heroes in the blue jersey, particularly up front, but the MacDonald brothers stood out. Hooker Quentin and number eight Jessie had mighty allround games, underlining their status in the Makos set-up. Jesse's tackling was superb while Quentin was a menace at the breakdown, contesting every ball to the letter of the law. Their ability to make ground around the ruck area was also vital in keeping Waitohi on the back foot.
And that was where they were from the fifth minute when Tamati banged over a 38m penalty to open the scoring.
The early scrums, so often a barometer of the forward battle, were relatively even, Central under some pressure but still able to clear their ball comfortably.
However referee Dave Woodhouse, who controlled a match played in good spirit well, wasn't happy with the Blues efforts at a set piece on the quarter hour mark and Waitohi number 10 Jayden Waters was able to level the scores from a handy position.
Then an arm wrestle ensued. Waitohi battled to gain field position but were foiled by turnovers and lack of accuracy.
Central tried to get their wide game going but also came up short. Their best chance to break the deadlock came after a refusal to kick for goal from a penalty. Fullback Jeremy Manning, a class act all day, was given space to move but a superb tackle from his Tohis' counterpart Jayden Goodyer stopped him, and the Blues, in their tracks.
When the first try came, in the 31st minute, it was worth waiting for. A couple of Quentin MacDonald charges and some swift recycling got the Blues on the front foot and, when the ball was spun left, a superbly-timed Manning pass allowed flanker Matt Gibson a 20m run to the goal line.
Tamati's conversion gave Central a 10-3 advantage, which could have been extended as the halfback missed a kickable penalty on the stroke of halftime. However, while the scoreline was by no means decisive, Blues' coach Steve Crockett would have been pleased with his charges, especially in their ability to negate Waitohi's strengths and keep them out of the game.
Meanwhile his counterpart, Tonga Taumoefolau, had cause for concern. His side seemed a little flat, unable to exert their customary dominance on proceedings. He brought on prop Bevan Moody at the break, for James Hounslow, in a bid to add some energy from the bench.
But it was his opposition who came out stronger.
Central were immediately into their stride, moving the ball right and left in a bid to create space.
They found it after four minutes. A free kick 10m from the Waitohi line was quickly taken. Jesse MacDonald, Francis Roebeck and Manning played their part, shifting the ball quickly and accurately to the left wing where Willie Umu was waiting to gallop across for the decisive score.
Changes were made by both sides. Waitohi brought Dan Karena and Mark Hodren on in the engine room, while Central introduced Fo'ou Tiueti for winger Alan Dinan.
Down 3-15, but with plenty of time on the clock, Waitohi had to lift their game, and they did. Three consecutive penalties put them within range of the Central line where they were able to adopt the tactics that had worked so well for them this season. Ross Geldenhuys, Moody, Chris Goodyer, Kenneth Karena, Sanualio Sakalia and Les Ivamy spearheaded their attack, but Central were up to the challenge, frustrating their rivals at lineout time and near the line with low, committed tackling. Eventually the relieving penalty would come and the Blues were able to clear their lines, only for Waitohi to pour back onto attack.
Such a period of concerted pressure was bound to take its toll and the Tohis finally had their reward in the 24th minute, elusive centre Filipo Ligaliga crashing over after another series of pick-and-goes. Goodyer's conversion bounced over off the post and at 15-10 it was anybody's game.
But if Waitohi had the momentum, it was quickly gone, referee Woodhouse penalising them for obstruction while receiving the ball from the kick off. From 25m Tamati slotted the goal and the Blues again had breathing space.
They had even more seven minutes later. A Waitohi lineout on their own 22 went astray and the ball ended up in the hands of Quentin MacDonald. The Blues surged forward and from the resulting ruck Waitohi were again penalised, Tamati doing the honours from 30m.
Down by 11 points with time running out, Waitohi opted for all out attack, often from deep in their half. Fullback Goodyer sparked a brilliant 40m counterattack, as did flanker Vernon Fredericks, but like so many of their side's best opportunities, they ended in a ruck turnover.
Manning skewed a drop goal attempt wide of the posts as the clock ticked down towards the game's inevitable conclusion and, when referee Woodhouse blew the final whistle, there was sheer delight in the Blues camp.
The Waitohi players' heads slumped, frustrated in the knowledge they had come up short. Their sights had been firmly set on the Tasman Trophy/Marlborough championship double and they went close. Perhaps the ongoing pressure of their successful Tasman Trophy campaign had caught up with them, but they certainly weren't at their best on Saturday.
Much of that, of course, is dictated by your opposition and no-one could deny Central their day in the sun. The Blues had been building momentum in the latter part of the season, the arrival of Quentin MacDonald, Fo'ou Tiueti and Manning adding to an already potent mix. Everyone played their part on Saturday. Prop Riley Luke was in doubt all week with injury but played the full 80 in a vital position, skipper Reyne Volavola had one of his better games in a blue jersey, fellow lock Dan Crockett was, as always, tireless and a wonderful lineout target. First five Gareth Smith made a nervous start but worked his way into the game well, making good decisions. Veteran Onolevu Temo provided the early punch in midfield, continued by Tiueti when he came on, while wingers Umu and Dinan thrived on limited opportunities.
Waitohi also had their heroes. Locks James Ivamy and Ken Karena were strong at the breakdown and carried the ball well, as did the loose forward trio of Fredericks, Les Ivamy and Manu Mataele. Co-captain Jimmy Giles and first-five Waters worked hard to gain valuable field position while the midfield combination of Sakalia and Ligaliga looked dangerous all day. At the back Jayden Goodyer had an impressive match, both on attack and defence.
Central will celebrate, and so they should. If a victory is worth savouring, it needs to be hard-earned, and this certainly was.
Both sides have been great ambassadors for Marlborough rugby this year. Given the recent history between these clubs, and their strength in depth, the possibility of them meeting in next year's final is high.
For many of the 1800-strong crowd at Lansdowne Park on Saturday, the 12 months won't roll around quickly enough.
The Marlborough Express