The Ngāti Porou East Coast Kaupoi are rugby champions in 2022.
The Hosea Gear-coached, Sam Parkes-led Sky Blues beat the Mid-Canterbury Hammers 25-20 in the Lochore Cup final of the two-tier Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship at Enterprise Cars Whakarua Park, Ruatoria, on Sunday.
It was a decade since they’d held aloft the Meads Cup and 23 years since they’d claimed the National Provincial Championship third-division trophy, both victories also at Whakarua Park.
The Coast are now proud custodians of the Lochore Cup, the Bill Osborne Taonga, the Anaru “Skip” Paenga Memorial Shield, the Arthur Wickes Memorial Trophy and the Basil Simpson Memorial Trophy.
They finished the year with a record of six wins from 10 games to complete their best Heartland season since 2012.
Brett Fell of Poverty Bay in 1999 and Jason Caskey of then-defending champions Wanganui in 2012 had brought to the Coast quality teams who played well and fought hard, and John Sherratt’s Hammers did no less on Sunday.
“It was a great game that either side could’ve won,” Hammers first-year head coach Sherratt said.
“The Coast simply took their opportunities when it counted in front of an awesome crowd and a wonderful community.
“We stayed in the fight and defended well but I’d like especially to acknowledge our MVP (most valuable player) lock Logan Bonnington, who brought up 50 games in the final. He’s hard-working, a very good leader and great team man with an exceptional sense of humour.”
The Coast’s Kaupoi — East Coast Cowboy, MVP — was centre Api Pewhairangi. He was superb value all-round and made the defensive, match-deciding play of the game in the 80th minute.
Former All Black Hosea Gear reached the top of rugby’s mountain as a player, and guided Sunshine Coast Grammar School to two first-15 titles, before this, an event he described as “the highlight of my coaching career so far”.
“As close a game as the final was at the end, I was confident in those last few minutes because the situation wasn’t new for us,” Gear said.
“Every one of our Heartland Championship wins this year has been within five points.
“The most pleasing moment was watching our boys close the game down, something they’ve had to learn to do. Where last year we lost all of our close games, this year we won them.”
NPEC captain and halfback Sam Parkes was rightly chuffed at his posse’s performance.
“We peaked at the right time and we kicked well — aerial or long kicks, not to hand — to nullify their strike options,” Parkes said.
“I’m really happy with how this season has gone. There’s nothing like winning in an East Coast jersey.”
Mid-Canterbury tighthead prop and co-captain Adam Williamson said: “That was what you want in a final — a fight. As a co-captain, I’m really proud of our team: we had highs and lows this season, but to pull it back and make it to a final was an effort and a half.
“I congratulate East Coast on a hell of a game and a well-deserved win.”
The Coast beat the Hammers 36-34 at Ashburton on August 27 two games into round-robin play and have now won six out of 21 matches against Mid-Canterbury. The crowd figure for the latest clash has been estimated at 3000, and conditions for the showpiece were ideal for running rugby.
Labour Weekend also saw the centenary of the Ruatoria City club. The curtain-raiser for the Lochore Cup final was a match between the City Centennial 15 and City 2022. During the second half, referee Eruera Kawhia stopped play as medical assistance was rendered to City Centennial 15 player Robert Tuari, Ngāti Porou East Coast Kaupoi No.718, twin brother of James, Kaupoi No.745. Despite the best efforts of all involved, Robert, an immensely popular and highly regarded player for City, Tokomaru Bay United, Poverty Bay’s Ngatapa and Gisborne High School Old Boys’ clubs, passed away.
This heart-rending situation was handled with the utmost gravity, respect and sensitivity, with all protocols observed, by officials and elders on behalf of the family.
A moment of silence was observed before the playing of the national anthem and haka taparihi.
Parkes, having won the toss, opted to play towards town. The temperature was 18 degrees, the surface firm. Williamson chose to kick off, and first-five Tom Reekie did the honours into a gentle north-easterly breeze.
A Coast pack primed and willing to play fast and hard made a mighty start. Three minutes in, from an attacking lineout on the left touch, hooker Joe Royal found powerful No.8 Faifilli at No.4 and within the drive, the Sky Blue pack poked and prodded their way from 22 to the goal-line. Royal scored the first try of the match 17 metres in from the corner.
NPEC first five-eighth Carlos Kemp converted the try, under genuine chase-pressure, for 7-0.
The Hammers shook the shock of the try with a determined first foray into Coast territory, Waikato referee Michael Winter ruling that NPEC centre Joe Wadman was offside, 16m from his goal-line.
In the 11th minute, Mid-Canterbury’s left-footed fullback Nathan McCloy —from five metres to the right of the posts — landed his first penalty goal for the forest-green-and-yellows to close it to 7-3.
At the quarter-hour mark, Hammers openside flanker Kaydis Hona was penalised for an infringement at Mid-Canterbury’s defensive scrum, 17m out from the goal-line, two metres left of the posts. Kemp made good the goal for 10-3 to NPEC, who gained field position prior thanks to the first of two 50-22 kicks. Parkes similarly came up trumps in the 25th minute.
The Coast’s tactical game, with box-kicks and wipers kicks, was intelligent and accurate. Only once did they fail to find touch on a line-kick.
Both sets of forwards toiled skilfully. Bonnington and Levave were excellent at the lineout, Kaupoi fetcher Will Bolingford was magnificent in terms of work-rate again.
The visitors’ big No.6, Manasa Samo, thoroughly deserved to score the try in the 33rd minute that, upon McCloy’s conversion, saw Mid-Canterbury draw level at 10-10, the half-time score.
NPEC were awarded a scrum-penalty 15m on their own side of halfway, nine metres off the left touch. Parkes sent them right — Levave went by Hona — but from the ensuing breakdown, Hammers’ second-five Isireli Masiwini charged down a kick from Kemp midfield. Masiwini then got a flick-pass to Samo, who ran across the face of goal to elude his pursuers.
The effort from Mid-Canterbury was gutsy: they took and gave big shots defensively. Williamson and his co-captain, halfback Tyler Blackburn, made second and third efforts to tackle in several instances.
As with the three other excellent referees to have graced Whakarua Park this season — Bay of Plenty’s Andy Morton, Hawke’s Bay’s Stu Catley and his Waikato compatriot Ben Woolerton (who was assistant referee No.1 at the final) — Winter’s ability to keep all 30 players on the field was vital to the contest. Players petitioned him: he was honest, clear and consistent, from first to last whistle-blast, in his 59th first-class game.
He, Woolerton and Poverty Bay’s Damien Macpherson can be proud of their contribution to a great day for rugby.
The Sky Blues won the lineout count 12-6, scrums 10-5 and penalties were 11 apiece: Mid-Canterbury made 9 handling errors to the Coast’s 6.
Not a tighthead was taken and each side lost only one lineout to the other but often a visiting team must lead in every facet of play to be successful in finals, and particularly at a place where the tide of history and passion for the home team are as powerful as at Whakarua Park.
Four minutes after the resumption, Kaupoi loosehead prop Hakarangi Tichborne scored the first try of the second half. At a lineout 15m from the left corner at Mid-Canterbury’s end, NPEC scrum-anchor Perrin Manuel snaffled a loose ball and set up play.
Over eight phases of play, the Sky Blues heaved to and finally over the goal-line, 17m infield.
Kemp converted for 17-10.
In the 48th minute, Parkes was penalised for offside play — the ball, kicked through, came off a teammate behind him — and McCloy kicked a 30m penalty goal from centre ground to draw the Hammers within four points of the Coast.
Reekie found space well on Sunday — only twice did the forest-green-and-yellow miss touch — but when they did, the price was high. In the 57th minute, Mid-Canterbury were awarded a relieving penalty on their own goal-line, left side of the park. McCloy’s line-kick was kept in just over halfway by powerful NPEC right wing Junior Time-Taotua.
He found fullback Tutere running straight and hard for 15m. Parkes cut reserve lock Khian Westrupp out with his clearing pass, Time-Taotua ran hard, beat Mid-Canterbury loosehead prop Ben Bartlett with a right-foot step and in desperation got the ball out to blindside flanker Jorian Tangaere.
The effort by Time-Taotua, in what was a tremendous tackle by Blackburn, to free the ball up (even on the half-volley), was a remarkable feat. Kemp could not convert, and the score was 22-13.
In the 74th minute, the price of not just missing a shot at goal but the ball not going dead proved to be astronomically high — for the Coast. From 38m out, 15m off the left touch, Kemp missed a shot at penalty goal. Mid-Canterbury made it outside the 22, cleared left-side and went through three sets of hands before Masiwini went inside to McCloy at halfway. McCloy flew downfield and scored beneath the posts. He converted his own try.
The Coast then led 22-20.
In the 77th minute, Kemp missed touch when gunning for the left corner but that miss, turned into a strip, turned into the match-deciding sequence of play. Mid-Canterbury, forced to run the ball out from their own 22, had Masiwini see the ball torn from him by Pewhairangi and NPEC then work play from side to side over 16 phases. Such a thing is maddening for an opposition behind on the scoreboard and out of time.
From three metres off centre, 34m out, in the 80th minute, Kemp kicked the penalty goal that necessitated the Hammers’ scoring a try to draw level at 25-25, or a converted try to steal a game in which they never had the lead.
Sherratt’s valiant southern outfit couldn’t manage it. The fit, skilful and composed Kaupoi held out, held on and won the Lochore Cup.
Ngāti Porou East Coast remain unbeaten in home finals.
Ngāti Porou East Coast Rugby Union president and Kaupoi No.622 Campbell Dewes was delighted with the result.
“With everything else going on in the world, we could do with a morale boost — a beautiful day, a park in pristine condition, an exciting game — and victory,” he said.
“Today was a great celebration of Ngāti Porou rugby.”
Ngāti Porou East Coast: 25 (Joe Royal, Hakarangi Tichborne, Jorian Tangaere tries; Carlos Kemp 2 con, 2 pen)