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Biggest game of season on

IT’S now a three-horse race for the Kath McLean Memorial Cup but a fourth, dark horse could tip the apple cart.

Unbeaten Tihirau Victory Club of Cape Runaway, with 24 competition points, top the seven-team table heading into Week 7 of Enterprise Cars Ngati Porou East Coast club rugby and the last game of the first round. At the end of their hour-and-a-half-long trip south to Ruatoria tomorrow, they have a date with destiny: Ruatoria City at Whakarua Park.

City (19pts) can’t win the iconic trophy but if they upset TVC, the winner of defending champions Tokararangi (21) v Uawa (21) at Te Araroa Domain, will. A win to TVC tomorrow, with or without a bonus point for scoring four tries, with a bonus point or no, will seal the deal for them in Round 1.

TVC captain openside flanker Mo Mato’s Cape Runaway crew had the bye in Week 6.

“We’re feeling good: relaxed, confident,” said the Victory Club skipper. “Our first major goal of the season has always been to win the Kath McLean, because that’s something TVC has never done. The focus is on scoring tries, which we’ve gotta do to beat City, who have some really big boys such as Boss Blackbee and John Brown up front.”

Featuring heavily in Mato and head coach Whetu Haerewa’s plans at scrum-time and in general play are props Tuamutu Poihipi, Hirini Delamere and hooker Te Taawhi Takuira-Mita. The side will be without outstanding lock Manaia Nyman due to injury, but strongman Hoani Te Moana, who debuted for TVC as an 19 year-old in 2011, will be in the traces. The backs include Te Manu Herewini at first-five, a good goal-kicker in centre Tutere Waenga and unpredictable fullback Verdon Bartlett.

Mato believes that his outfit will receive vocal support up and down the sidelines at Whakarua Park, in the 1 v 4 clash: “Our fan club will be there.”

City, led by openside flanker Jack Richardson, will field a very competitive forward pack. The fearless fetcher joins forces with tough blindside flanker Shaun Aupouri and hard-hitting No.8 Tanetoa Parata in the Ruatoria City back-row. All are devil-may-care in terms of self-preservation.

The front-row — Boss Blackbee, John Brown and Pera Bishop — is a tried and true combination. In the halfback-first-five pairing of CJ Fox-Campbell and Travis Tawera, there is both gritty experience and flair, more experience wider out with second-five Corey Walker and a tremendously promising talent at fullback: Leethan Tipene-Rawiri.

City are coming off a 33-26 win at home against Hicks Bay and won the Ruatoria derby 15-7 v Hikurangi three weeks ago: both were pressure games. The Lisa Muller-coached City played with not just passion but desperation, and while TVC are clearly favoured to extend their winning streak, Richardson and company will not bow, don’t bend and are unlikely to buckle. The clash up front will be as physical as the referees’ crew of Eruera Kawhia, Ario Rewi and Shirley Mato allows it to be.

Ragnarok refers to fate — götterdämmerung — to world-altering events.

Both apply rugby-wise to the biggest game of the season so far for two of the superpowers of club rugby, Tokararangi of Te Araroa and Uawa of Tolaga Bay, who last met at Uawa Domain on July 11, in Week 1 of the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.

Then-underdogs Tokararangi, under co-captains openside flanker Hone Haerewa and centre Pamona Samupo, beat the two-time standing champions 21-20 to claim the Api Crawford Shield. That was the first game Uawa had lost since the calamitous (if somewhat hilarious) 36-34 loss to Hicks Bay at Kawakawa mai Tawhiti in Week 4 of the first round in 2019.

The Api Crawford Shield, like the Chas Keelan Memorial Trophy Uawa defended 29-3 against Hikurangi last week, and George Keelan Memorial Trophy they lost 26-20 to TVC at Uawa Domain on Good Friday, are keepsakes that the big blue crew part with reluctantly. The Api Crawford Shield is on the line in Week 7.

Much has happened in the past two years, both for clubs and individuals: TVC beat Uawa 20-10 in the 2 v 3 semi-final of 2020 to break the Awa’s vice-like grip on the championship, Tokararangi won it all in 2021 and game-breaker Samupo will make his debut for Hicks Bay tomorrow.

The Tokararangi posse under Hone Haerewa will feature big tighthead prop Chris Bristow, hooker Tina Waitoa, young titans Dyllyn Evans and Kyah Hollis at lock with backs of the calibre of first-five Rapata Haerewa, second-five Te Kooti Kingi and Hirau Grant on the right wing. The Israel Brown-coached Tokararangi have a simple mantra: to play classy footy and enjoy themselves while maintaining their team values of humility and respect for all within a disciplined structure.

The hosts’ regular captain tighthead prop Scott Lasenby is unavailable tomorrow, but in halfback Sam Parkes they have not just a man who leads by example but a man in form. His second-half hat-trick of tries in Week 4 allowed The Awa, as hosts, to come back from 12-0 down to beat Tokomaru Bay United 22-17 at Hatea-a-rangi.

That is an incredible effort by any measure. The multi-skilled Tipene Meihana ran at both fullback and first-five during last night’s practice, and while head coach Chris Richardson has not yet named a side, he has quality options and resources. What’s more, he has within his team’s ranks the calmness born of experience, embedded within a mature group. First-five Josh Dearden, like lock Paddy Allen, performs consistently in a crucial position.

Uawa and Tokararangi are evenly matched and the atmosphere at Te Araroa Domain tomorrow will be electric: kick-off in all three games is at 2.30pm. Jackson Reuben-Swinton, LeRoy Kururangi and David Newton will officiate.

Defeat never tastes good, whether it be bitter, sour or sickly sweet.

Yet tomorrow will, barring a draw, teams 6 and 7 will go all-out to get their first win. Hicks Bay (eight competition points) and Tokomaru Bay United (one point) have taken some big knocks in the first round. Tokararangi beat United 103-12 at home last Saturday, and on opening day, March 27, TVC hit Hatea-a-rangi like a hurricane, 81-0.

But United coach Kuru Gray and their captain loosehead prop Mike Chambers-Raroa continue to work their blue-collar crew very hard. The honest effort of players such as Portrait Watene, TBU’s tighthead prop and Most Valuable Player in Week 6, is well-known. The likes of Chambers-Raroa and United blindside flanker Jake Williams, both of whom scored popular tries last Saturday, supply a truckload of effort at every game.

Tokomaru Bay lost 29-5 to Hikurangi at Kahuitara a fortnight ago but they were committed, aggressive and accurate in the tackle.

They may be matched for keenness by the Hicks Bay coach: Aaron King, 43 years young, is even now preparing to spell first-choice hooker Jim Hovell as required. His son Josh is at loosehead prop, younger son Anton is at No.8, and Aaron’s younger brother Jackson will partner Weihana Delamere in the second-row. The flank-forwards are Frank Taiapa and Brady Heu.

Aaron King debuted for Hicks Bay at loosehead prop as a 15 year-old, under the captaincy of NPEC legend Morgan Wirepa senior in 1993. He well knows that before the likes of Tiera Brown-Biddle (halfback), Irie Noanoa (first-five), Romeo Newey-Schumann (right-wing) and captain Shaun Murtagh (fullback) can express themselves, his pack must impose their will in the duel for possession and field position.

Delamere is a superb line-out forward, Anton King carries the ball strongly. Both teams relish the tussle at close-quarters. Both sets of forwards ruck cleanly but hard, as they should.

King senior has a refreshing take on how the game should run tomorrow: one to make true-hearted forwards up and down the country green with envy.

“The boys know what I want: if we’re camped on their goal-line for a while, it might be time to give the ball to the backs,” he said. “Hicks Bay-Toko games have always been tough and here on the coast, the coaches tog up if they have to. We want to win.”

Former NPEC assistant coach Troy Para is the referee, to be assisted by Victor Herbert and Peter Matahiki.