East Coast rep team 1933-34

In 2001 East Coast, New Zealand’s smallest rugby  union, captured the hearts of rugby supporters throughout the land with a fairytale run to the final of Division Two of the NPC. While the resident  population of the East Coast is small, its rugby team is able to draw on the  support of nearly 100,000 people of  Ngati Porou descent scattered across the country. During the team’s dream run in  2001 many of these supporters returned to Ruatoria to cheer on Ngati Porou East Coast at Whakarua Park. Some saw East Coast’s secret weapon as its ‘whanau spirit’. Orcades  Crawford, the Coast’s inspirational prop forward, added that ‘when you put on a sky blue  jersey it’s totally different to anything else – it’s probably better than the  All Blacks [jersey]’.

The East Coast Rugby Football Union was  established in 1922 and joined the national body a year later. Always  considered to be one of the minnows of New  Zealand rugby, East Coast currently competes in the  Heartland Championship, a competition for New Zealand’s amateur and  semi-professional provincial unions. Along with Taranaki, Wanganui, Poverty Bay, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa Bush, Manawatu, Horowhenua-Kapiti and Wellington, East Coast is part of the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise.

Great players

Despite its small size, East  Coast can lay claim to one of the all-time greats of New Zealand rugby: George Nepia. He and Andy Jefferd (1980–81) have been the Coast′s only All Blacks. Both first came to prominence while playing for larger unions.

At the age of 19 Nepia was one of the stars of the 1924–25 All Blacks,  dubbed ‘the Invincibles’. The only fullback selected, he played in all 32 matches on the  team’s tour of the British Isles, France  and Canada.  His performances prompted a leading British journalist to  write, ‘it is not for me a question of whether Nepia was the best fullback in  history. It is a question of which of the others is fit to loose the laces of  his Cotton Oxford boots’. But after that four-test tour, Nepia only played another five test matches for the All Blacks, four of them against the 1930 British Lions. One reason was his non-selection, on racial grounds, for the 1928 tour to South Africa. He was also  restricted by injury and illness and was unavailable for several tours. His  status in New Zealand  rugby was best demonstrated in the mid-1980s  when – more than 50 years after his  last All Black game – he was the subject of a widely viewed This Is Your  Life television programme.

Morgan Waitoa with 114 games holds the record for the most appearances for East Coast. Eli Manuel scored a record 400 points between 1985 and 1996.

2001

 East Coast has never won  the Ranfurly Shield and has made only sporadic challenges since its first in 1953. East Coast is  the only team never to have scored a try in a Ranfurly Shield match. A 115–6  thrashing at the hands of Auckland  in 1997 highlighted the gulf between the country’s largest union and the  smallest. Yet within a few short seasons the Coast stood  on the brink of promotion to the top flight of New Zealand provincial rugby.

East Coast declined  promotion to the second division of the NPC for the 2000 season after defeating neighbours Poverty  Bay in the 1999 third  division final. With its limited resources the Coast had to weigh up  carefully the economic impact of an expensive campaign in the second division.  There was also a sense that the squad needed to be strengthened to ensure that  a competitive team could be fielded in the higher grade. Players of Ngati Porou  descent were recruited from around the country. One of them was Orcades  Crawford, who returned home after enjoying considerable success with Hawke’s  Bay, the Central Vikings and the Hurricanes. With the benefit of his hard-nosed  experience another third division championship was wrapped up with a 25–21  victory over North Otago. This time East Coast  accepted promotion.

East Coast won over many rugby fans throughout the land during a  memorable 2001 season. The  Coast quickly established itself as one of the sides to beat in the second  division. Victory away to Manawatu late in the round-robin would guarantee a  home semi-final. However Manawatu were unbeaten  at home for the season and had never lost to East Coast. On match day East  Coast were boosted by the arrival of 3000 vocal fans who did much to negate  Manawatu’s home advantage. A 24–22 victory ensured that in their first season  in the second division East Coast would host Nelson Bays  for the right to play off for first-division status.

The day of the semi-final began  with a street parade in Ruatoria as thousands of Ngati Porou fans arrived from  all over the country for the match. A carnival atmosphere greeted the players  when they ran on to Whakarua  Park. East Coast had lost  on the road to Nelson  Bays in round-robin play and at half-time  Bays led 12–9. Urged on by a record crowd of 6000 which at  times resorted to singing the famous 28th Maori Battalion  anthem, ‘March to Victory’, Mano Flutey  kicked seven penalties to bring the Coast home 21–12. Next stop was the final in Napier against unbeaten  Hawke’s Bay.

The fact that a number of the Coast team  had cut their rugby-playing teeth at Te Aute College and gone  on to play for Hawke’s Bay added extra spice to the match. A  large contingent of Ngati Porou fans descended on Napier’s McLean Park. With less than 10 minutes to go the Bay led 30–10 and the fairytale run seemed to have come to a  shuddering end. With pride on the line East  Coast scored three tries in the final minutes, the last from a 45-m  rolling maul. Hawke’s Bay hung on to win 30–27. The New Zealand Herald summed up the match and the season: ‘East Coast won  the battle of the supporters; they’d already won the hearts of New Zealand’s  sporting public’.

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