Taniwharau crowned Waikato club rugby league champions after beating Hamilton City Tigers in grand final
Taniwharau have been crowned 2017 Waikato club rugby league champions after holding out a spirited Hamilton City Tigers fightback in their grand final showdown in Huntly on Saturday.
Trailing 16-0 at halftime, the Tigers roared back in the second half at Davies Park, but, fittingly, it was hosts Taniwharau who were able to finish their season unbeaten, eventually prevailing 16-14 in a pulsating finish.
Ironically, it was probably the visitors who had the majority of the momentum, but in the end Taniwharau's three tries in 10 minutes before halftime proved crucial, as did a couple of misses off the boot of sharp shooter Vaughan Calcinai, whose Tigers side were forced to play catchup.
With both teams sloppy in their execution in the opposition's 20-metre zone, in what were sunny and dry conditions following some earlier heavy showers, it took a tick under 30 minutes for the opening points.
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It was the hosts who played from in front, as loose forward Malcolme Noda plucked a good intercept from Tigers prop Namu Puru, then, soon after a quick tap from a strip penalty, fullback Damien Darlington produced some nice stepping to score under the posts.
The Tigers looked likely to hit back when fullback Aaron Jolley collected a high kick and offloaded for Hayden Karena, but the hooker lost the ball over the line in the swarm of defenders. And from there Taniwharau pounced, with centre Mahinga Rangi making a great break down the left edge, showing superb speed, and drew and passed for winger Jordan Tai Rakena to show a clean pair of heals for the corner.
Behind by double figures, things got worse for the Tigers a couple of minutes before the break, when Jolley dropped a bomb 15 metres out from his posts, and the ball was quickly shifted left, for halfback Darren Kingi to slice through a scrambling defensive line.
To emphasise the visitors' sudden shift in mood, Taniwharau prop Steven Kingi dropped the restart cold but the halftime hooter saved his blushes.
At 16-0 down it was going to be an uphill climb for the Tigers to try and make it a three-peat of titles. But to their credit, they gave it a real shake.
Their comeback started when Jolley sliced through in the 49th minute, and from there they spent a heap of time pressuring the Taniwharau line.
But with little kicks going just out of reach of flying attackers, and the Taniwharau defence holding strong then some smart exit kicks getting them out of trouble, time was starting to tick away.
However, when the clock reached 70 minutes, Rudolph put Jolley on a fine break upfield, and soon after, second rower Tamainu Huirama powered his way over close to the line. Calcinai's miss from two thirds of the way to the right sideline kept the margin at six.
As a few nails got bitten by the home fans, backsides certainly shuffled towards seat edges when Kingi kicked out on the full and handed the Tigers the ball on halfway. And sure thing, from there the visitors efficiently worked left and winger Daniel Taungakava finished with a brilliant dive in the corner. Golden point loomed, but captain Calcinai couldn't nail the tough attempt.
Still though, with four minutes left the Tigers rolled their way upfield and looked dangerous. When Taniwharau got the ball back Noda missed a field goal attempt from in front, and it gave the Tigers their last set. They attacked till the end, throwing the ball around, but come the last tackle and the hooter sounding, Rudolph was wrapped up, and Taniwharau could celebrate.
The A.S. Muir Memorial Shield was back in their grasp, second rower Pawhare Brown took the Tawera Nikau Trophy for man of the match, and it capped off a stunning time of it for first-year coach Harley Raihe, with his side's only minor blip being a draw against the Tigers in the final round of the regular season.
The former player and club president had been reluctant to take the coaching reins, and said it was certainly "pretty stressful" at times watching - no more than Saturday's second stanza.
"Geez in the second half we didn't go out and do what we wanted to do, what we spoke about at halftime, and we kind of made things hard on ourselves," he said. "Credit to Tigers... they almost took the game.
"I was always confident that we were good enough to get it. On the other side as well, I knew Tigers were good enough to take it too, because they proved that last year [beating the Pacific Sharks at the death].
"I was glad it was only one minute to go when they had the ball, so we just sent out the call 'one minute of D' and then our boys stepped up."
Tigers coach Hira Albert was philosophical in defeat, saying they would just have to come back stronger next year.
"You've got to win some, you've got to lose some, and at the end of the day you've got to take your hat off to Taniwharau, they've had an awesome season, and they've been the benchmark this year," he said of a team which, according to Raihe, crucially improved their culture going into this campaign.
"I hope that the things that we did instil this year, they realise that if we stick to those type of values and stuff, this is the end result - you do the work, and like they say, you get the treats," he said, ahead of eyeing up the celebrations.
"It'll be a couple of great nights, I think."
AT A GLANCE
Waikato club competition, Grand final
Taniwharau 16 (Damien Darlington, Jordan Tai Rakena, Darren Kingi tries; Duane Sykes 2 goals) Hamilton City Tigers 14 (Aaron Jolley, Tamainu Huirama, Daniel Taungakava tries; Vaughan Calcinai goal). HT: 16-0.