Opposing half backs ready to do battle

FINE FOOTWORK: Hayden Karena will be a key player in the final.
FINE FOOTWORK: Hayden Karena will be a key player in the final.

They have had many a fine battle over the years and today two nuggety halfbacks will be going at it again in the WaiCoa Bays club rugby league grand final.

The Ngaruawahia Panthers take on the Hamilton City Tigers in this afternoon's decider at Davies Park in Huntly and both teams will be led by their influential No 7s, who are the captains of their respective outfits.

The Panthers' Heremaia Samson is set to return to the paddock after three weeks out with an ankle injury, while Hayden Karena has been his consistent self in directing the Tigers around the park.

Both men have thrown compliments at one another and are looking forward to trying to get the upper hand and guide their team to glory.

The Tigers are the defending champions and also won the only available trophy in 2010 for the Waikato competition, while they have also won the Waikato title this year.

Last year the Waikato trophy eluded them when the Panthers toppled them following the WaiCoa Bays celebrations, but generally the Panthers have struggled in the big matches.

Samson said his players would have learned from those struggles going into today's match.

He said they had been creating a strong team brotherhood and wanted each individual to focus on what they had to do to contribute to the team effort.

The Panthers are coming off a 44-6 drubbing of the Pacific Sharks in their semifinal last weekend and that will fill them with confidence.

Samson wants his players to focus on getting the basics right today - minimising errors and making the most of the opportunities that are presented to them.

"When it comes to finals football it comes down to those little one per centers," he said.

"The boys trained well during the week so can't wait to get out there and rip into it."

Influential prop Craig Wiggins is under an injury cloud and will be assessed before the game, while Samson is hopeful his ankle will get through the match.

The Panthers have lost two of their 13 games throughout the year and both of those were to the Tigers, with a 24-12 loss in Hamilton in the Waikato competition in May, before a 16-6 defeat in Ngaruawahia later that month in the semifinal.

"They're a quality side and they're not the defending champions for no reason," Samson said. "They certainly play well as a team and they certainly play with a lot of flair and they've got a lot of experience in their squad as well.

"Coming up against Karena will be a big challenge as well, but Samson enjoys marking him.

"He's probably one of the top halfbacks, if not the top halfback, in the WaiCoa Bays competition. His representative history speaks volumes and he's certainly one of the key dangermen in the Tigers team. So I always look forward to that battle and I can't wait to get out there and play up against the wee fella, the general, so to speak."

Meanwhile, Karena remembers plenty of semifinals and finals against Samson, including the Waikato decider last season.

"Last year he had a real good game and led his team to a victory over us and got the last say so we'll be looking to try and get one back," Karena said.

"He's a real clever player, he knows how to run his team and the main thing is his boys respect him and will do anything for him.

"So it's going to be a good battle."

Karena said they can be confident after having beaten the Panthers twice this season but that finals were a different ball game. The intensity's going to be a whole heap higher and so is the speed of the game," he said.

The Tigers, whose only loss this season was in their opening hitout against Taniwharau, will have a similar team to the one they fielded in last week's 22-10 semifinal win over Taniwharau, but there is the addition of centre Isaac Robinson, who had a haematoma and could have played last weekend but only at about 70 per cent.

Karena, who said there had been plenty of talk within his team of going back to back and finishing their season on a high with two trophies in the cabinet, is looking for his team to keep up their intensity throughout the contest, with that having been a weak point previously.

"We sort of have a knack of taking our foot off at the wrong time and then other teams tend to put the points on. So we've got to stay focused. We know that they're a real good side who play for the whole 80 so we have to match them."

Waikato Times