Cobras, Rabbits well matched for big clash
After 15 rounds of bone-jarring action and two sodden semifinals, it is time for Tasman Rugby League's big dance, as the Stoke Cobras and the Richmond Rabbits continue a fledgling rivalry that has delivered some magic moments already this year.
Nothing separates these teams as they head into tomorrow's grand final, and with both sides at full strength the scene is set for what should be a battle of willpower as much as it is a clash of skill and power.
Both Stables Richmond Rabbits and Super Cheap Auto Stoke Cobras have well-rounded games with strength across the park, the only difference coming in their manner of play. For Stoke, it is all about the aggression and flair, while Richmond rely on discipline and fitness.
Stoke coach Troy Wilson said his side had been working on controlling their aggression since their last game against the Rabbits. He said they will be focusing the fury into a game plan so the volatile energy lasts the whole 80 minutes.
Look for Stoke to try to control the contact up the middle through Caleb Tauwhare and James Piukala while the big hitting James Vailanu has moved out to centre to force Richmond's attacking weapons into defensive work. If the Cobra forwards gain dominance Keani Edwards and Jamein Bristowe will be awaiting the offloads.
Rabbits coach Phil Tavite has said his side will focus on controlling the ball. Tavite said on attack their edge is in the outside backs.
The Rabbits' have game breakers on the edges, with the likes of Callum Smith and Lucas Bennett hitting some good form. But for those guys to have the room, the Rabbits forwards like Ryan Charles and Siaki Peti will have to set the foundation.
The structured game of the Rabbits has earned them a proud 2-1 winning record against the two-time defending champion Cobras. Stoke has led at halftime in each match, with Richmond's wins both courtesy of final quarter comeback victories, attesting to their fitness. However, if you cut up the numbers over the season, the picture looks a little more even.
In the first-ever meeting of the sides back in early May, the Rabbits, in their first season, upset Stoke 34-26. That win was the first loss for the Cobras in 20 matches, stretching over three seasons and they did not forget it quickly.
In their next meeting in July the Cobras levelled the ledger with a 26-18 win before Richmond clinched the minor premiership with a last-minute try in a thrilling 26-23 final round victory. The average score over the three games comes out at a tantalising 26-25 in favour of the Rabbits.
In the regular season both teams played 12, won eight and lost four, with Richmond's extra two points coming from a breach of the interchange rules by the Wairau Taniwha in the second game. Stoke have a slightly better record in attack scoring 509 to the Rabbits 504, while defensively it is close as well, the Rabbits conceding 239 to the Cobras 260.
All-in-all the numbers point to a match that should go down to the wire, where extra time and then golden point become a real prospect. That would be a fitting way to decide a season that would mean so much for each of the teams, for very different reasons.
For Stoke this is about history and building a legacy. It is a proud club with family ties and deep roots in the region's rugby league past, and a title three-peat for the side would be tantamount to a dynasty.
"It [the three-peat] hasn't been a major talking point for us, but that is there in the back of the mind of the players," Wilson said.
For the Rabbits, their new club and venture has been forged in success. They have a minor premiership, the best-win record, and a culture of family and brotherhood that fits well with Tasman Rugby League. But even so coach Tavite said they are not finished yet.
"It's a new team and a new club. We have already pulled off a minor premiership and if we can pull off a grand final that's just definitely something special and I'm sure it will be remembered for a long time."
No matter what way it goes, a piece of rugby league history will be made tomorrow. The gates open to the alcohol and smokefree event at noon, with the primary schools' Simon Mannering Cup finals playing out the curtainraiser from 1pm.
The Nelson Mail