Tasman Titans triumphant
Lying sprawled across Trafalgar Park, players from both sides gasped for air after an outlandish final passage of play was snuffed out.
As the replacements spilled on to the field, the Tasman Titans defenders began to gauge that their desperation in the dying moments had just earned them the title of South Island champions.
At five tries each, the South Island premier rugby league competition final delivered a captivating encounter full of contention to match the collisions. Ultimately, though, the Southland Rams' final charge fell short and the Titans stood triumphant, 26-24 winners on Saturday.
Heading into the final 10 minutes, Tasman had come back from a 16-10 deficit at halftime to lock up the scores at 20-all. Southland looked to have crossed in the corner but the tight call any TMO would have struggled to make saw the try disallowed.
Notwithstanding a subsequent try to Southland and some heart-in-mouth moments on the final tackle, the winning of the match came from a Callum Smith break through the middle and was finished by ever-present hooker Freedom Walker. Hayden Smith's conversion secured the two-point win and the first premier trophy for the Titans.
What got Tasman home was their professionalism and control. Even when they were chasing the game, the champion outfit never let aggression or frustration get the better of them, and it paid off.
The majority of Tasman's tries were well executed, playing to their strengths on the right-hand edge with the devastating impact James Vailanu offsetting the scything skills of Callum Smith. Halfback Rangi Ngaruhe was influential, as was his halves partner Hayden Smith. Young wing Kaiapa Paul added spark as a second-half replacement, as did a scorching 60-metre run from Jamein Bristowe.
In the pack, Joe Collins made his presence felt with strong runs and the hard work of Johnny Delore and Tamaio Piripi never faltered. But as Southland attacked desperately in the game's final moments, which swept from touchline to touchline, every player was a credit to the Titans uniform and the Tasman region.
"There are no words to describe this," said captain Bristowe following the trophy presentation.
"We have been training for this a long time, the boys have gelled together and, you know, we just tried to do this for the whole region, for the region and for rugby league around here."
Tasman coach Phil Bergman said the drive to be champions came from within every player this season.
"There is definitely a culture we are trying to build through the Titans. It's not just a playing thing, you have to be a good bloke; you have to be a professional on and off the paddock. It's a lot different from last year; the boys beat me to train for 15 minutes before training and everyone is there.
"I don't have to worry about problems outside of rugby league. It's all part of the culture that we've bred here and all these boys bought into it; it is tremendous."
Bergman also recognised the contribution that the Southland players made, and a victory that could have easily gone the other way.
"Some funny decisions went both ways. I know Southland are very disappointed, but I thought it was a very close and hard-fought game played by both teams, and the score line showed we just got away with it," Bergman said.
Southland brought plenty of passion to the contest. Led up front by the damaging runs of prop Shaun Tamariki-Todd and from the back by the evasive Arfi Peteru, it was the visitors who looked the most threatening.
Southland did enough to win this match on the balance of play, but a couple of calls went against them and a sin-binning due to a lack of discipline midway through the second half allowed Tasman back in the match.
Sadly, the tough but sporting Southland players were let down by the shameful conduct of their staff on the sideline. Emotions inevitably run high in a final and when a crucial call goes against your side, there is an entitlement to be upset and a little controlled venting is to be expected. But the sustained intimidation and verbal pack abuse of a sideline official was inexcusable.
The incident that continued 10 minutes after the final whistle was officially put on report. However, it was the only blemish on what was otherwise a thrilling day of entertainment and a triumph for rugby league in Tasman.
Earlier, Hayden Smith had opened the scoring with a penalty, but it was Southland that scored the first try after 10 minutes as hooker Tom Watts' angled run away from dummy-half out-flanked the defence. Soon after, Tasman's Vailanu got one-on-one five metres out after a cut-out ball and the try was inevitable.
The lead changed again when bulking Southland prop Tamariki-Todd barged over, and when wing Stacey Mikara latched on to a cross-field kick, Southland stretched out to a 16-6 lead.
In the 39th minute, Tasman scored a vital try to head into the shed with confidence. Attacking down the right, Ngaruhe produced another quality cut-out ball and centre Callum Smith crossed.
Tasman turned with the breeze and continued their momentum as Hayden Smith drifted through a hole to score.
Southland pounced on a loose offload as Matt Birch stretched the lead to six again, but when Callum Smith scored his second, the game entered a frantic stalemate, and spectators were treated to a chair-clenching climax.
Tasman Titans 26 (James Vailanu, Callum Smith 2, Hayden Smith, Freedom Walker tries, Hayden Smith 1 pen 2 cons) Southland 24 (Tom Watts, Shaun Tamariki-Todd, Stacey Mikara, Matt Birch, Omeka Raimona tries, Pale Tuilagi 2 cons) Ht 16-10 to Southland.
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