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East Coast rugby round-up

RUGBY by Ben O’Brien-Leaf

Sometimes structure goes out the window and the game is better for it.

That was the state of play at Whakarua Park when Ruatoria City hosted Hicks Bay in Week 6 of Round 1 for the Kath McLean Memorial Cup in the Enterprise Cars Ngati Porou East Coast club rugby on Saturday.

City (19 competition points) beat Hicks Bay (eight pts) 33-26 to take fourth place. Hicks Bay remained in sixth spot. Defending champions Te Araroa-based Tokararangi, and Uawa of Tolaga Bay both have 21 points, the former placed second on points differential.

Tokararangi made the trip to outrun No. 7 Tokomaru Bay United (one point) 103-12 at Hatea-a-rangi, and Uawa won 29-3 at home v Hikurangi (15pts), bumping their guests one spot from fourth to fifth in the process. Unbeaten Tihirau Victory Club (24pts) had a bye in the penultimate week of the first round.

The Lisa Muller-coached City won this weekend’s closest game with a phenomenal performance by their back-row, who scored all of their tries: No. 8 Tanetoa Parata did the hat-trick, blindside flanker Shaun Aupouri and captain openside flanker Jack Richardson also scored and lock Nathaniel Fox landed three conversions.

First-five Travis Tawera, winner of City’s Most Valuable Player award, was superb: his running, passing, kicking and tackling were all of the highest quality.

For Hicks Bay, No. 8 Anton King scored twice, lock Manahi Brooking and centre-cum-halfback Tiera Brown-Biddle one try each, and first-five Irie Noanoa landed three conversions.

Hicks Bay coach Aaron King said: “The game had a quick start. Early on City had most of the ball, but we performed well too in the first half. Anton had another good game at No. 8 for us. We put pressure on City for 38 minutes. It was 26-all with two minutes to go before Jack picked the ball up from the back of a ruck, and went 5m to score just to the left of the posts.

“Tiera, who’s just made the New Zealand Area Schools team as a halfback, is the link we’ve been looking for in our team and was our MVP on Saturday. He started at centre, later moved to halfback and threw a dummy, then backed himself to score what was a well-deserved try.”

Hicks Bay’s back-division has been further boosted with the signing and transfer of hot-stepping second-five Pamona Samupo to Hicks Bay from Tokararangi. He will join a club whose legends, such as former NPEC game-breaker Tyrone Delamere, still turn out — with a passion — as required. Delamere started the match at halfback before switching places with centre Brown-Biddle.

On Saturday, City had a strong southerly breeze at their backs in the first half and opened the scoring in the 14th minute with a try to Parata, minus conversion, for 5-0. Hicks Bay’s Brooking then struck back for the visitors after 23 minutes. Noanoa converted Brooking’s effort to give the visitors a 7-5 lead. By minute 29, Parata crossed again, plus the conversion by Fox, for 12-7 to The Maunga. At the 34 minute-mark, Brown-Biddle scored, Hicks Bay equalised at 12-all. That try was unconverted. Parata completed his hat-trick in the 40th minute and that, with Fox’s conversion, gave the hosts a 19-12 advantage at half-time.

Hicks Bay titan King crunched 10 hard metres to score the first try after the resumption, in the 49th minute. Noanoa converted for 19-all. Aupouri, City’s powerhouse, hit back 57 minutes in with a conversion by Fox (26-19 to City). King still had gas in the tank: his second try, after 67 minutes, was complemented by Noanoa’s conversion, for 26-all. The final act of this tit-for-tat thriller was Richardson’s try in the 78th minute. Fox, for the third time in a row, again struck gold with the boot to give Ruatoria City victory 33-26.

Whistle-blower Harawira Matahiki had a fine match, and was quick to acknowledge the role played by assistant referees LeRoy Kururangi and Ario Rewi.

“They helped me control an awesome game,” said Matahiki. “Either team could have taken it. Congratulations to both for playing hard to the 80th minute, and to City on their win.”

Uawa were on top in the first half: Hikurangi showed up in the second.

In East Coast rugby there are few games bigger than The Awa versus The Maunga for the Chas Keelan Memorial Trophy, which Uawa retained in convincing fashion by the halftime and fulltime score of 29-3.

The home team’s try-scorers were second-five Jesse Rye (with a double), captain and tighthead prop, Scott Lasenby, right-wing Caleb Billington, and lock George Waddy, on debut. First-five Josh Dearden, an exciting prospect, kicked two conversions.

Hikurangi had the last say before the break: a penalty goal to first-five Kayleb Te Whare, in the 35th minute.

Uawa head coach Chris Richardson gave a strong and honest take on the match.

“It was a good game. We played to our structure in the first half, at the right end of the ground and took our chances,” he said. “Hikurangi played well in the second half. I thought they were unlucky.”

The Uawa skipper was filled with admiration for the MVPs of both teams.

“Hikurangi’s reserve hooker Jodi Walker was into everything, as was our blindside flanker, Te Atapo Kirikiri,” he said.

“Our man’s defence was on point, he carried the ball with guts, cleaned out well, was a real pest to Hikurangi for the whole game.

“Eruera Kawhia as the referee did an awesome job. He was very clear in his pre-game chat and on-field instructions as well.”

Visiting captain No. 8 Rhys Walker won the toss, choosing to play into the southerly. Uawa resolved to take advantage where and whenever possible, against their determined opponents, in a game played at pace and with numbing physicality.

Uawa dominated field position and possession of the ball for long periods in the first half. Their control and experience up front was impressive.

Walker and his young team, well-coached as they are by Matt Richards and Drummond Morice, deserve enormous credit for stemming the tide: in games to date, Uawa have come from 13-5 down to beat Hicks Bay 31-13 at Kawakawa mai Tawhiti, 13-6 down to have City escape 26-20 at Uawa Domain, 12-0 down to beat Tokomaru Bay United 22-17 at Hatea-a-rangi. Week 6 was the first during which the big men of Tolaga Bay, including such stand-outs as Waddy’s second-row partner Rikki Kernohan and fearsome centre Jordan Birch, have threatened to cut loose this season. Against a less committed side, the hosts would doubtless have hit 50-plus points by game’s end.

For any team to hold Uawa scoreless in the second half of a home game for The Lasenby-led Awa is to pass East Coast rugby’s litmus test for courage and tenacity.

Given a taste of freedom last week, the defending champions wanted more on Saturday.

Evidently Tokararangi enjoyed their 58-10 run-around with Ruatoria City at Whakarua Park to such an extent that they went for gold in Week 6, 103-12 as guests of Tokomaru Bay United.

The defending champions’ try-scorers were centre Teina Potae (a hat-trick), a double each to halfback Whakarae Henare, second-five Te Kooti Kingi, fullback Mohi Bartlett, reserve No. 8 Riki Waitoa, one try each to hooker Tina Waitoa, lock Kyah Hollis, No. 8 Richard Green, left-wing Hirau Grant and reserve left-wing Kyros McClutchie. First-five Rapata Haerewa kicked nine conversions in the highest-scoring game of the season to date.

Tokararangi led 50-0 at the break.

The Tokomaru Bay United forwards who cut the goal-line in the second half were their indomitable captain, loosehead prop Mike Chambers-Raroa, whose try was converted by hooker Wyntah Riki, and blindside flanker Jake Williams.

United’s MVP was their solid tighthead prop and scrum anchor Portrait Watene, with Grant winning that award for Tokararangi.

Tokararangi’s regular captain Hone Haerewa, deputising for their coach Israel Brown, was moved to say that United pushed his pack on Saturday as hard as any other team had done in the previous five weeks.

Referee Jackson Reuben-Swinton said: “United never gave up. They worked very hard to get to within striking distance of the goal-line. The spirit in which they play the game, having been awarded two penalties, they tap-kicked and ran to score both of their second-half tries. No matter the margin in the games that the teams who have to work hardest in this competition play, they always field full teams, they’re stripped and ready to play.

“United, as with all of our clubs here, are warm hosts for not just the players but the officials as well. My wife and I loved that.”