Watch out 'Naki
If the Tasman Makos rugby team was hoping to fly under the radar heading into Saturday's much anticipated Ranfurly Shield challenge against Taranaki, those hopes were squashed at Trafalgar Park on Friday.
The Makos' outstanding and thoroughly deserved 25-22 ITM Cup triumph over Canterbury showed this year's team has significantly more to offer than the tired, underpowered 2011 version which finished dead last in the Championships division.
Basking in the glory of Friday's triumph, where little brother gave big brother a lesson on enthusiasm, commitment and tactics, victorious skipper Andrew Goodman already had more than a glint of excitment in his eye when he talked about Saturday's shield challenge, just the second in the Tasman union's history.
"The boys have got eight days to rest. Really looking forward to that. The biggest game of our lives for a lot of players," Goodman said.
Makos coach Kieran Keane, a veteran of several Ranfurly Shield epics playing for Canterbury said he had been looking forward to the challenge for six months.
Far from being worried about Friday's win blowing their cover, Keane said: "It couldn't be better. It's given the players that bit of belief, alongside the change of mindset we've been working on. That win was a real fillip for the side.
"We needed to toughen up mentally. In past years we've lost those tight encounters."
Keane knows that whatever happens in the next week, the shield challenge against Taranaki will be, in his words: "A hell of a challenge. Shield rugby brings out the best in everybody and it's about who can handle the heat in the kitchen."
If his players needed any reminding about just how tough Taranaki will be, they got that with the Amber and Blacks' convincing 37-22 bonus-point win on Saturday against Bay of Plenty.
Canterbury were fortunate to get as close as they did to snatching Friday's game. When wing Johnny McNicholl sped over on the back of a Makos turnover with just four minutes to play and Tyler Bleyendaal's conversion put the Red and Blacks 22-18 ahead, it looked like another heartbreaking loss for the home team.
However, showing the determination and grit they displayed throughout the match, the Makos did not give up, got down into Canterbury's 22 courtesy of some Robbie Malneek counter-attacking magic and on the back of a strong scrum, put pressure on the clearance.
Hayden Cripps partly charged down Bleyendaal's kick and when the ball went wide, replacement centre Kieron Fonotia sidestepped his way under the posts and was driven over the line for a brilliant match-winning try.
Any other result would have been an injustice. The Makos played most of the rugby, Canterbury's best periods coming at the start of both halves. While the Makos varied their tactics and their kicking game, Canterbury were for the most part content just to hoof the ball downfield and hope for the best and they rarely threatened to score.
Shane Christie's opening try was a cracker, the result of a counter-attack from inside his 22 by fullback Malneek. Malneek himself scored another cracker, a set-piece move from a lineout, Goodman making the line break.
One difference already clear about this year's team is the greater impact off the bench. Replacement halfback Steve Alfeld produced a try-saving defensive play by diving fearlessly at the foot of charging Canterbury players and held up long enough for his team to clear. The scrum retained its edge when prop Tim Perry came on for his debut replacing the hard-working Sam Prattley. Flanker Tevita Koloamatangi, Vernon Fredericks and Francis Smith added impetus at the end and Fonotia producing his moment of magic.
This was a team effort and that's what this Makos team is about and what will be the key to their season.
They've got steel this team and the addition of former All Black prop Campbell Johnstone should not be underestimated.
This team had 10 new caps and there doesn't appear to be a dud amongst them. Man of the match Cripps was superb at first five as he drove the team around the park superbly and varied his game cleverly as well as kicking a crucial field-goal.
Goodman looked rejuvenated in midfield, Bryce Heem has added X-factor at centre and both wings James Lowe and Peter Betham looked full of potential. Malneek, a foundation Mako along with Goodman, is the spark on counter-attack and while he might have missed a couple of tackles, he's an excitement machine and a match-winner.
Both halfbacks impressed. Jeremy Su'a shone until a shoulder injury forced him off. Steve Alfeld slipped right into the groove. In the forwards, a strong scrum, anchored by Johnstone, was the most reassuring factor.
Openside flanker Christie had a blinder but the real eye-opener came from No 8 Jordan Taufua, ironically on loan from Canterbury and a member of the New Zealand under-20 team. His pace was electrifying and he certainly moves bodies in contact.
Canterbury played without imagination and were not their usual dominant selves in set pieces. No 8 Nasi Manu and openside flanker Matt Todd were their standouts.
On the Makos injury front, there were the usual bumps and bruises with hooker Quentin MacDonald injuring his shoulder and leaving the field in the last quarter and Su'a exiting the game early with what appeared to be a leg injury.
BIG MATCH FACTS
Tasman Makos 25 (Shane Christie, Robbie Malneek, Kieron Fonotia tries, Andrew Goodman 2 con, pen, Hayden Cripps field goal)
Canterbury 22 (Johnny McNicholl try, Tom Taylor 4 pen, Tyler Bleyendaal con, pen)
Half-time: Tasman Makos 11-9
Man of the match: Tasman Makos first-five Hayden Cripps
Match turning point: Steve Alfeld's snuffing out of a kick ahead from Bleyendaal, saving an almost certain try 25 minutes into the second half
Match stats: Territory: Makos 60 per cent Canterbury 40; Possession: Makos 48 per cent Canterbury 52; Lineouts: Makos 14 Canterbury 11; Penalties: Makos 14 Canterbury 10
What they said
Tasman Makos coach Kieran Keane: "Fantastic result but, oh hell, there was a bit of deja vu there. I just worried we'd lost it near the end and we didn't deserve to lose anything. We played all the football, made all the running. Part of the plan was to keep the tempo up and when we played and shifted them around, we looked pretty good."
Match-winning try scorer, replacement centre Kieron Fonotia: I just pinned my ears back and was hoping. My headgear slipped down over my eyes. I couldn't see where I was going but the boys drove me across the line."
Man of the match, first five Hayden Cripps on his crucial last-minute chargedown: "I was lucky to get a hand on it. I just ran hard. I thought I made a bit of an error just before back in our half when they scored that try. I was really a bit angry with that. I just ran as hard as I could, dived at it and luckily got a hand on it."
The Marlborough Express