Waikato win bittersweet for departing Leonard

SWANSONG: Brendon Leonard is sad to say goodbye to Waikato rugby, but believes the region has a bright future ahead.
SWANSONG: Brendon Leonard is sad to say goodbye to Waikato rugby, but believes the region has a bright future ahead.

Brendon Leonard believes he is leaving Waikato rugby in good shape for the future after playing his last game for the province in yesterday's 85-0 Ranfurly Shield defence against Horowhenua-Kapiti.

Leonard, 28, will head to Italy at the end of the Super Rugby season to play for the Zebre club in Parma.

But new Waikato coaches John Walters and Carl Hoeft gave him the chance to play a farewell match for the red, yellow and blacks on his Morrinsville Sports club ground of Campbell Park and he jumped at it.

The former All Blacks halfback, who is currently finishing his seventh Super Rugby season with the Chiefs, didn't take long to get into the scoring action, claiming the second try of the 13-try romp three minutes into the match. He was the last of the Waikato players substituted in the 66th minute.

"I'm very thankful I got the opportunity with the Chiefs coaches happy for me to play and Johnny and Hoefty happy for me to join their team late in the piece and have a run with them," Leonard said.

"And I've played a lot of club footy here [at Campbell Park] so I had fantastic support and obviously the town got here in numbers, so it was a great occasion."

Waikato Rugby Union officials estimated a crowd of about 3000 at the park for the match with 2500 of them having bought tickets ahead of time and they made it a colourful occasion with lots of tents, food and beverage stalls and music.

Leonard revelled in the occasion and the chance to play a swansong match for the team that launched him into the All Blacks at a young age. He will leave for Italy the day after the Super Rugby final.

"I'll miss Waikato, I'll miss the Chiefs and small towns like this, but it's time for me to move on.

"You saw today the young fellas coming through who are going to put this province in good shape for the future so it was good to go out on a note like that," he said.

For head coach Walters, who took over the job at short notice when his predecessor Chris Gibbes took a new post as Ospreys assistant coach in Wales, it was all about blooding 11 uncapped players with just three Chiefs squad or wider training squad players released to play.

"We talked about staying focused for 80 minutes and working hard for 80 minutes and I think we did that so I'm happy in that regard," Walters said.

The shield holders were on a hiding to nothing against a Horowhenua-Kapiti team that finished dead last in last year's Heartland Championship and are comprised totally of amateur players. But the result was a record score against the visitors, surpassing the 51-7 from 1977 in Levin.

Waikato kept a point-a-minute scoring rate throughout the first half as they stuck to their structures and defended powerfully while having too much pace and skill out wide, scoring six of their 13 tries and Trent Renata converting five of them for a 40-0 halftime advantage.

After 56 minutes they led 59-0 and after 66 minutes it was 78-0 and threatening to climb towards the century mark, but after the Waikato coaches cleared their reserve bench the flow was disrupted and the scoring dried up until five minutes into injury time when New Zealand Under-20 outside back Joe Webber picked up his fourth try to finish the game.

The challengers had their moments on attack and deep in the final quarter they hammered the Waikato line but lacked the ability to crack the final line of defence.

There was some impressive young talent on show in the form of Webber, former Warriors Under-20 centre Dylan Collier, first five-eighth Wharenui Hawera and forwards Rory Grice, Whetu Douglas and Brian Alainu'uese, while Leonard, fullback Trent Renata and lock Romana Graham added some vital experience.

Waikato 85 (Joe Webber 4, Dylan Collier 2, Glen Robertson 2, Brendon Leonard, Whetu Douglas, Romana Graham, Brian Alainu'uese, Hame Faiva tries; Trent Renata 8, Wharenui Hawera, Collier conversions) Horowhenua-Kapiti 0. Halftime 40-0 Waikato.

Waikato Times