Waikato's premier club rugby grand final at Marist Park might have to play second fiddle to the Super Rugby semifinal today but in many ways there are similarities.
There are clear favourites, based on form, in Lodge City Rentals Hamilton Marist and then there are the defending champions - OTC/Freightlines Otorohanga.
Marist have powered through the season, winning 16 of 18 round-robin matches and overwhelming Fraser-Tech 21-0 in last weekend's semifinals.
The Marist club has not won the Waikato Breweries Shield for 10 years, last getting its name engraved on the impressive trophy in 2003 and its premier A team are determined under head coach Sean Botherway to end the drought.
But they must be wary of an Otorohanga side that broke through for their first title last year, playing some sensational rugby at Waikato Stadium in the final and have not missed a beat under a new coach and playing without skipper Zak Hohneck for all but the last couple of matches.
Today's final is the first to be played at a club venue in about 20 years and the first to be played away from Rugby Park/Waikato Stadium since 2001 when the stadium was being built and Stan Heather Park hosted finals day.
Otorohanga finished second to Marist in the Haswell Catley Trophy round-robin so it is fitting the two most consistent sides get to meet in the final, but they were a distant second, winning 12 while losing five and drawing one.
The visiting team have also suffered a major setback this week with both props who were yellow carded in their 19-11 home semifinal win over Hamilton Old Boys being cited and having to appear before a judicial hearing.
Ted Tauroa escaped without further punishment when video evidence did not quite match the eye witness account of the person citing him, but Whetu Barber, son of coach Noel Barber, was found to have made a dangerous spear tackle and was suspended for five weeks.
"It's been a bit of an upsetting week this week, going into the final, but there's not much you can do about that but move on," Noel Barber said at yesterday's club final breakfast.
But other than that Otorohanga are at full strength and, like Marist, it has in some cases been a matter of who to leave out.
The only change to their lineup is at loosehead prop where Josh Ostern replaces Whetu Barber and John Jackson comes on to the bench.
Otorohanga's experience of coming to Hamilton last year and winning the grand final would stand them in good stead this time, Noel Barber said.
"It makes a big difference, knowing that they've been there, done that, and they've prepared for the last two weeks - even going into the semis.
"We played last week as if it was our last game of the year, knowing that if we won it we go to the next one and we've prepared well in the last two weeks."
Visits to the judiciary are not new for Otorohanga this season and two players were suspended for five and six weeks respectively after the last time they played Marist, but Noel Barber disputed they had a problem with discipline in the team.
"The thing is we've got a physical side, a big forward pack, but I don't think our discipline will be an issue [in the final]. It's just the way we play - it's physical up front."
Barber said his team had to play to what they knew, to stick to their established structure that had been reinforced over the last four weeks.
For Marist coach Botherway there were some tough selection decisions in a squad with possibly more depth than any other in Waikato club rugby this season, particularly among the loose forwards. Bart Karalus will captain the side from No 8 and former All Black Marty Holah and Zane Kapeli will be the starting flankers, with AJ Tuhoro and Luke Karalus backing up from a 5-2 bench.
"I think it's uncharted territory for our club over the last 10 years so it's exciting and the boys are ready, they've worked really hard and I'm sure they will put in a good performance tomorrow [today]."
Marist's stronger showing this season and their surge to the final was put down to another year's experience under the belts of the younger players and the depth of talent established.
"We've been able to cope with those periods of the season where injuries and illnesses, and interruptions with rep teams and those sorts of things can strangle a club."
That depth had also sparked greater competition for places within the squad, which hadn't allowed any players to get comfortable in their jersey.
"There's been a real fight for positions right up until Thursday night when some tough decisions had to be made," Botherway said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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