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Sunday looms large for everyone involved in Ngati Porou East Coast rugby.

🏆 2022 Lochore Cup Final
🏉 Ngati Porou East Coast v Mid Canterbury
📍 Whakarua Park, Ruatoria

For everyone that the national game matters to, for whom it is a part of the fabric and tie to society on the Coast, 1.05pm tomorrow will signal an escalation of fervour for the Sky Blue Kaupoi – Cowboys – at Enterprise Cars Whakarua Park in Ruatoria.

1.05pm is kick-off, the time at which the hosts’ sensational first-five Carlos Kemp or one of Mid-Canterbury co-captain halfback Tyler Blackburn, Kemp’s opposite Tom Reekie or first-five cum fullback left-footed Nathan McCloy will boot life into the Lochore Cup Final of the Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship.

NPEC began the competition with the Sky Blues 14, the red, white and blue of Horowhenua-Kapiti 32, at Ruatoria on August 20. On October 8, the Coast took their medicine from a juggernaut that has now won 23 games in a row to conclude round-robin play: reigning Meads Cup champions South Canterbury beat the Kaupoi 52-7 at Timaru. But last Saturday, the Hosea Gear-coached Sky Blues took revenge against the ‘Nua with a 37-30 win in the 6th-7th Lochore Cup semi-final at Levin, even as the Hammers upset North Otago 31-15 at Oamaru.

The Kaupoi have won five of nine games, Mid-Canterbury four, the former having pipped their guests tomorrow 36-34 at Ashburton in Round 2…McCloy’s 37m penalty attempt from the left touch on full-time swung across the face of goal, as the Coast took only their second win in nine trips to the Showgrounds. It was just NPEC’s fifth victory overall, in the 20 Coast-Hammer clashes since 1991.

While for 2021 Lochore Cup champions Steelform Wanganui today is their day of destiny at Alpine Energy Stadium/Fraser Park as guests of South Canterbury, Mid-Canterbury will tomorrow be in search of a second Lochore Cup title. The Hammers won the second-division of the South Island National Provincial Championship in 1980 and 1984, the third division overall in 1994 and 1998, the Meads Cup back-to-back in 2013-2014, the Lochore Cup in 2017: these were their great triumphs on the grand stage.

Ngati Porou East Coast won the third-division NPC title in 1999 and 2000, and the Meads Cup in 2012. The memories of 54 consecutive losses and the 2,975 days between wins have been expelled – or exorcised, where rugby is a family, club and community sporting faith.

NPEC head coach Hosea Gear’s three-year mentorship of the Sky Blues has been transformative and with captain halfback Sam Parkes’ great on-field and off-field example, the Kaupoi are fit, sharp, disciplined, skilful and – most dangerous of all – confident. Gone is the Wild West, harum-scarum, chip-kick-and-chase from out of their own in-goal area, in is the strong close support from forwards with a work-rate to match any Heartland Championship pack, and backs on the hip of he who creates space or makes a bust.

Gear said: “We’ve prepared for this game as we have every other week, the only difference being the media-hype, and our biggest challenge has been to contain that, because everyone’s excited, as you can imagine.”

Parkes is of similar mind: “The boys are keen, but the trick is to control that energy – implement what we want to achieve.”

Parkes’ growth as a player (he was still 18 when he replaced former Coast captain halfback Charlie Harrison in the 57th minute of the 2012 Meads Cup Final), to one who has 62 Sky Blue caps and has pushed the likes of South Canterbury halfback William Wright – Heartland Rugby’s Player of the Year last season – harder for the No.9 jersey than anyone else.

Mid-Canterbury’s Blackburn and Reekie are good value at 9 and 10. McCloy did everything a man can do, to get his team home in the first meeting between the Hammers and NPEC this season, with a try, four conversions and two of three penalties. Blackburn is adamant that he and his outsides must express the talent they have, with his role being to put his mark on the game and drive the forest green and yellows around the park.

Yet for all that, Blackburn’s co-captain tighthead prop Adam Williamson, who said of August 27 that the Kaupoi he faced that day were the best NPEC crew he’d met since debuting in 2015, and that the physicality, aggressiveness and pace at which their forwards began Game 2, were major factors in the result. Prior to that last encounter, Mid-Canterbury had won the last five games between the teams – including the last three played in Ruatoria.

Wise heads around the Hammers will know that the natural apprehension of a long trip to, an environment as different to the mainland as can be thought of, may have eased. John Sherratt of Mid-Canterbury doesn’t want his team to be too casual or to make a sluggish start but nor would he want them to panic or, even worse still, freeze.

As head coach, the positive outlook and approach – plus keen eye for detail – that Sherratt has shown in the first 12 months of his two-year turn with Ashburton’s finest, has a lot to recommend it.

“We expect a massive atmosphere up at Ruatoria and we want to play to our potential, with all parts of our game coming together, for 80 minutes,” said Sherratt. “As a team, we’ve grown each week, developed belief in each other, had fun and travelled well. All of us are excited and ready to walk towards a big challenge.”

Sherratt has made no changes to the starting 15 or the 23 who won the Southern Derby last Saturday: left-wing Raitube Vasurakuta, who scored a late try against the Sky Blues at the Showgrounds, got a double v the Old Golds in the 5th v 8th Lochore Cup semi-final. Of the 15 that began the match v NPEC two weeks into the competition, while only six will start tomorrow, four are forwards: scrum-anchor Williamson, lock Logan Bonnington (in his 50th game for the Hammers), openside flanker Kaydis Hona and Michael Hennings at No.8.

NPEC strongman Perrin Manuel – son of 1999 NZ Rugby Awards Coach of the Year Joe McClutchie, who that season at home led the Sky Blues to the first of two consecutive third-division titles – scored their second try against Mid-Canterbury when last the teams met and so knows what it takes, literally, for Coast teams to get over the line. Manuel has been granite for the Kaupoi at scrum-time and their famous rolling maul, a tried and true weapon at home, could also be in hot demand at Whakarua Park if it is utilised successfully early in the game.

Veteran hooker Joe Royal, lock Khian Westrupp, a hat-trick hero at Levin in Parkes and the talented Kemp are but four of those capable of sparking a big heave or second effort from the Sky Blues, who from last week’s semi have named the same personnel in the starting 15 with one switch in position: Hoani Te Moana will swap 7 for 6 with the imposing Jorian Tangaere.

The last three men to wear the hat of the Kaupoi – East Coast Cowboy and Most Valuable Player, a nod to the 28th (Maori) Battalion – at the business end of the season have been second-five Te Manu Herewini, fetcher Will Bolingford, and Westrupp. That these three are gritty performers – to the extent of bouncing back to take on The ‘Nua, having had his nose broken the week before, in Bolingford’s case – is indicative of an unselfish, team-first attitude.

NPEC loosehead prop Hakarangi Tichborne and Methven’s Hennings won their respective teams’ MVP awards at the Showgrounds: only close scrutiny reveals their true value as hard-working contributors, whether that be at restarts, line-outs or the breakdown.

Were Tichborne, a try-scorer against Poverty Bay in Round 4, or any other Ruatoria City player to score a representative try on the occasion of not just this Lochore Cup Final but City’s centenary at what is their home ground, a rousing cheer may well go up.

The witness best-placed to appreciate that would be the patron of the East Coast Rugby Union and recently retired Gisborne District Council for the Matakaoa Ward Mr. Bill Burdett, a life member of both the Union and City, President of the Union in 2012, Chairman in 1999, and attendee at both the 50th and 75th anniversaries of Ruatoria City.

A crowd of around 350 attended the match on August 27 at Ashburton. The biggest crowd Whakarua Park has drawn was 6000-plus, on October 14, 2001, for the second-division 2nd v 3rd semi-final against Nelson Bays, a 21-12 victory to the Sky Blues.

COVID-19 has curtailed large gatherings during the last two years, but the word that accommodation in Gisborne and on the Coast this Labour Weekend is being feverishly sought suggests a big turn-out at the headquarters of NPEC rugby tomorrow.

The idea that the Lochore Cup could soon sit alongside the Bill Osborne Taonga, the Anaru “Skip” Paenga Memorial Shield, the Arthur Wickes Memorial Trophy and the Basil Simpson Memorial Trophy, is a powerful one.

The man in charge of tomorrow’s Lochore Cup final will be Fraser High School old boy and former Waikato Rugby Union referee education officer – now Waikato’s marketing and communications manager – Michael Winter, (Waikato), 34, who made his first-class debut at Gisborne’s Rugby Park in Poverty Bay v Thames Valley on August 29, 2015. Tomorrow’s final will be Winter’s 59th first-class appointment; he controlled NPEC v South Canterbury at Timaru a fortnight ago. His assistant referees are Ben Woolerton (AR1, 24, Waikato), a procurement and sourcing specialist for Livestock Improvement – who blew his whistle for the Sky Blues v Steelform Wanganui at Ruatoria on September 3, and has done so at first-class level 12 times – while ex-Gisborne Boys’ High School man, now farm manager Damien Macpherson (Poverty Bay), 36, with seven first-class caps and who cracked the National Squad in 2018, is AR 2.

Ngati Porou East Coast:
1.Hakarangi Tichborne (15 first-class caps, Ruatoria City)
2.Joe Royal (7, Ponsonby, Counties-Manukau – Loan Player)
3.Perrin Manuel (56, Waiapu)
4.Hoani Te Moana (33, Tihirau Victory Club)
5.Morgan Poi (9, Waiapu)
6.Jorian Tangaere (21, Waiapu)
7.Will Bolingford (19, Waiapu)
8.Faifili Levave (8, Waiapu)
9.Sam Parkes (captain, 62, Uawa)
10.Carlos Kemp (9, Uawa)
11.Verdon Bartlett (92, TVC)
12.Joe Wadman (8, Northcote, North Harbour – Loan Player)
13.Api Pewhairangi (6, Tokomaru Bay United)
14.Junior Time-Taotua (7, Northern United, Wellington – Loan Player)
15.Tutere Waenga (12, TVC)
16.Jody Tuhaka (19, Waiapu)
17.Semisi Akana
18.Khian Westrupp (9, Uawa)
19.Richie Green (29, Waiapu)
20.Jack Richardson (22, Ruatoria City)/ Mania Nyman
21.Hamuera Moana (26, Hikurangi)
22.Te Manu Herewini (11, TVC)
23.Kris Palmer (46, Hikurangi)/Tipene Meihana

Ag-Staff Mid-Canterbury Hammers: Hunter Stewart (11, Shirley, Canterbury – Player of Origin), Ben Bartlett (9, Methven), Adam Williamson (48, co-captain, Southern), Logan Bonnington (49, Southern), Lote Limadeni (18, Rakaia), Manasa Samo (27, Methven), Kaydis Hona (10, Celtic), Michael Hennings (19, Methven), Tyler Blackburn (47, co-captain, Methven), Tom Reekie (21, Methven), Elyh McKibbin (3, Celtic), Isireli Masiwini (26, Celtic), Raitube Vasurakuta (26, Celtic), Jonetani Vasurakuta (5, Celtic – Overseas Player), Nathan McCloy (31, Celtic).

R: Mason Briant (9, Southern), Harry Burgess (3, Celtic), Ben Crawford (10, Celtic), Henry McManus (11, Rakaia), Shepherd Mhembere (27, Celtic), Angus MacKenzie (10, Rakaia), George Hufuga (10, Methven), Waitangi Tuisuga (9, Sumner, Canterbury – Loan Player).

Round-robin record

Ngati Porou East Coast: August 20, Ruatoria, lost 14-32 v Horowhenua-Kapiti – August 27, Ashburton, beat Mid-Canterbury 36-34 – September 3, Ruatoria, lost 18-34 v Wanganui – September 10, Gisborne, beat Poverty Bay 12-10 – September 17, Ruatoria, beat West Coast 29-27 – September 24, Te Kuiti, lost 21-32 v King Country – October 1, Masterton, beat Wairarapa-Bush 20-16 – October 8, Geraldine, lost 5-57 v South Canterbury6 v 7 Lochore Cup semi-final: October 15, Levin, beat Horowhenua-Kapiti 37-30.

Mid-Canterbury: Westport, lost 29-34 v Buller – Levin, lost 34-36 v Ngati Porou East Coast – Ashburton, beat West Coast 48-15 – Oamuru, beat North Otago 40-35 – Ashburton, lost 22-35 v King Country – Levin, beat Horowhenua-Kapiti 15-13 – Ashburton, lost 13-36 v South Canterbury – Wanganui, lost 13-46 v Wanganui5 v 8 Lochore Cup semi-final: Oamuru, beat North Otago 31-15.

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