Club rugby feast in the making
A mouth-watering Marlborough premier club rugby final is on the menu at Lansdowne Park.
Crafar Crouch Waitohi and Biddy Kates Central, first and second in the 2014 Tasman Trophy, predictably won their way into next weekend's decider, the in-form teams combining forward power with backline finesse to notch decisive semifinal victories on Saturday.
Seeded one and two going into the semis, Waitohi and Central had control by halftime and didn't take their feet off their opponents' throats.
The Blues were arguably the more impressive, dispatching a listless BNZ Partners Harlequins outfit 64-5, while the Tohis racked up seven tries in beating TvA Awatere 42-13 in the late game.
With the morning rain relenting, conditions allowed judicious use of the ball and Central underlined how potent their back attack is, seven of their 10 tries going to players wearing double digit numbers. Their scrum also showed itself as a potent force, pressurising Harlequins' ball and setting a perfect attacking platform for their own.
Waitohi have set the standard all season when it comes to forward play and, although they took time to assert themselves over a gritty Awatere eight, they gradually seized control. Although five of their seven tries were scored by backs, the work had been done up front.
The contrast in styles suggests a fascinating battle on Saturday, between clearly the province's two best club sides.
Central 64 Harlequins 5
A couple of key positional decisions helped set the Blues on the path to victory. Experienced utility back Jeremy Manning started in the 10 jersey, while Makos hooker Quentin MacDonald slotted into the front row, his brother Jesse packing down at the back of the scrum.
Manning's ability to move the ball wide when appropriate, willingness to attack the defensive line and well-honed kicking game created problems for the Quins out wide all day. The elder MacDonald added his vast experience to the scrum mix, with Jesse lively off the back of the set piece.
But this was very much a team effort from the men in blue. Their first try, after nine minutes, summed up their approach. A 50m counterattack by midfielder Onolevu Temo, carried on by Quentin MacDonald and winger Alan Dinan, ended five metres short of the Quins' line. Central built pressure through their scrum dominance before embarking on a series of pick and goes. When their progress was finally halted the ball was spun wide to MacDonald, whose overhead pass found Dinan clear on the right.
Ten minutes later they were in again, a 20m lineout drive dragging in defenders before slick passing created a try for fullback Nick Malins on the left.
Harlequins battled to get into the game. Their efforts to build pressure on the Blues' defence frequently came unstuck through handling errors, leaving them unable to string phases together and subsequently find attacking field position. Forwards Fetu Ieremia, Atu Taufa and Vaea Samasoni were willing runners but too much of their work was done deep in their own half.
Central's third and fourth tries came three minutes apart. Dinan scored his second after a Jake Cresswell incision, then Manning created space to send the ball wide for a Willie Umu five-pointer. Both tries required good hands and sweet timing of the pass, a Blues' trademark on the day.
Manning converted Umu's try and added the extras to a Jesse MacDonald touchdown three minutes before the break, pushing their lead to 29-0 after 40 minutes of almost total dominance.
If Quins had plans for a quick turnaround after the break, they were soon foiled, halftime substitute Fo'ou Tiueti dotting down after just two minutes as the gap widened to 36-0.
To their credit, Harlequins lifted their game, finally forcing some field position. First five Brandyn Laursen looked the main threat, making several telling bursts, but inaccuracies cost them much-needed continuity.
Three more Central tries, to lock Dan Crockett, flanker Francis Roebeck and Umu, pushed the scoreline to 57-0 before Quins had their best moment, determined centre Chris Tau'alupe sliding over the line on the left to register his side's only points.
Fittingly the Blues had the final say, midfielder Tiueti scoring his second as he shredded some weak defence after a 5m lineout.
By the time referee Peter Watson, who controlled proceedings well, blew for fulltime Central's minds were firmly on next week's showdown while the Harlequins players were left ruing a tame ending to a season which had started with much optimism.
Waitohi 42 Awatere 13
While not such a free-flowing encounter, this match was also entertaining, with the Tasman Trophy champs taking time to assert their dominance.
Both sides started nervously, their set pieces inaccurate and handling patchy, but soon settled into what seemed a similar game plan. A lineout drive Picton side was matched by a similar surge from the set piece by Awatere, neither paying dividends.
However, the scrum battle told another story. Tighthead prop Ross Geldenhuys crossed the line in the 14th minute but was called back for a forward pass. From the ensuing scrum Waitohi forced a turnover and, when they put the ball in 5m out, their eight shunted over the line giving number eight Manu Mataele a simple job for the first try.
Awatere's reply was immediate, David Pope bouncing a penalty attempt off the crossbar after 19 minutes, as the lads from Seddon took the game to the hot favourites. The Tussocks' physicality at the breakdown and defensive grit prevented the Tohis from applying the game plan that has worked so well for them, leading to a see-sawing, stop-start first half punctuated more often by blasts from referee Mark Andrell's whistle than moments of sparking play.
Then Awatere suffered a double blow towards the end of the half. Firstly winger Kieran Hickman, who had a lively match, was sinbinned for a high tackle, then his cousin hooker Paul Hickman was forced from the field with a broken jaw.
And Waitohi struck. From a 5-3 scoreline with seven minutes to go before halftime, the Picton side raced out to 22-3 at the break.
Firstly, fullback Jayden Goodyer scored following a well-timed pop pass from Jayden Waters, who added the conversion and a penalty, before the first five himself scored on the stroke of halftime, albeit rather fortuitously as two defenders collided near the line, leaving the way clear to touch down. Suddenly what had been a sizeable hill for Awatere to climb had become a mountain. And two minutes into the second spell it grew even higher as centre Filipo Ligaliga, whose combination with fellow midfielder Sanuacio Sakalia is burgeoning, took advantage of a bullocking 35m run by Mataele to dot down.
Another try to right winger Henry Evans five minutes later, following a mazy run by fellow winger Naki Taliauli, pushed the score to 32-3 and there was no going back for the tenacious Tussocks.
A characteristic try to flanker Vernon Fredericks from a lineout drive extended Waitohi's lead before Awatere enjoyed their best period of the match.
Centre Manasa Nayagi scored their first try, benefiting from a period of consolidated pressure and a string of penalties to dot down.
The Tussocks' second was also hard-earned, more goal line pressure creating loose ball which tighthead prop Jack Best toed through and dived on, to the Awatere supporters' great delight.
As with the previous match, it was fitting that the dominant side had the final say, Waitohi wrapping up a satisfying day with their seventh try in the final minute when Ligaliga grabbed his second following a turnover.
While far from a perfect performance from the Tohis, they bounced back well after their only loss of the season last Saturday, and showed some of the ruthless approach to points-gathering that will be needed against the Blues.
Best in their pack were Mataele, lock James Ivamy and his brother Les who worked hard all day. Outside the scrum, the Yellow and Black backs enjoyed a productive afternoon, led by Waters who continues to grow in the number 10 shirt. Fullback Goodyer again displayed an eye for a gap, as did wingers Evans and Taliauli.
Awatere's pack competed well for parts of the match, led by Stu Campbell and Kurt Lindsay, with Jack Roberton, Scott Morgan and number eight Lui Finau close behind.
Ben Finau continued to pose problems behind the scrum, while midfielders Ben Filipo and Nayagi got themselves into the match during the second half.
Like Harlequins, Awatere will reflect on a lost opportunity to finish their season on a high note, lapses in concentration and lack of combinations letting them down on the big occasion.
As for the Tohis, history beckons. Never before has a Marlborough side won both the Tasman Trophy and the Marlborough title.
But they must overcome an in-form Central outfit to reach their goal - as I said at the opening, a mouth-watering prospect.
AT A GLANCE
Central 64 (Alan Dinan 2, Daniel Crockett, Francis Roebeck, Jesse MacDonald, Willie Umu 2, Nick Malins, Fo'ou Tiueti 2 tries, Jeremy Manning 7 con)
Harlequins 5 (Chris Tau'alupe try). Ht 29-0. Waitohi 42 (Manu Mataele, Vernon Fredericks, Jayden Waters, Filipo Ligaliga 2, Henry Evans, Jayden Goodyer tries, Waters pen 2 con)
Awatere 13 (Manasa Nayagi, Jack Best tries, David Pope pen). Ht 22-3.
Saturday July 19, Lansdowne Park - Crafar Crouch Waitohi v Biddy Kates Central
The Marlborough Express