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Momentous year for the Coast

What was the secret of East Coast Rugby Union’s success in their centenary year?

Passion, spirit, planning, tremendous support, a former All Black as head coach of the Sky Blues and a player-led drive to turn their fortunes around were all factors in the rejuvenation of Ngati Porou East Coast rugby.

The heightened exposure of the women’s game has been backed by a Cushla Tangaere-Manuel-led office in sync with its board and dedicated to giving its eight representative teams opportunities.

After an 81-0 loss to Farah Palmer Cup side the Tasman Mako women at Jubilee Park, Richmond, halfback Shirley Mullany-Mato led her team from 14-0 down at halftime to beat Poverty Bay 22-21 at Rugby Park, Gisborne, on October 30.

NPEC head coach Whetu Haerewa and his Bay opposite, Ron Tamatea, share a deep commitment to the sport. YMP legend Tamatea spoke of his women’s self-belief, loyalty and the sacrifices they’d made with home life having paid off in their match-effort.

The same is true of Haerewa’s unit, who had beaten Eastern Bay of Plenty 26-20 (October 9) and the Bay 31-12 (October 16) at Hikurangi’s home ground of Kahuitara.

For the Whetu Haerewa and Jackson Reuben-Swinton-coached Coast women to win three games straight is a positive. For All Black 1079 Hosea Gear to return from Queensland and coach New Zealand’s smallest union to three Heartland Championship victories, and beat Civil Project Solutions Poverty Bay 28-21 for the PJ Sayers Cup at Whakarua Park, Ruatoria, on Queen’s Birthday Weekend for the first time in five years, sounds like a dream.

Yet in sport, dreams can come true.

Gear, another former All Black Ma’a Nonu and Samoan international Faifili Levave joined forces for the Sky Blues off the reserves bench (61st minute) in the 50-26 victory over Buller on October 16.

NPEC halfback Sam Parkes won the “Kaupoi” — a hat honouring the East Coast cowboys of 28 (Maori) Battalion — on that, the same day upon which his teammate Te Rangi Fraser likewise scored two tries.

The 24-point win was the Coast’s first in 54 Heartland games between 2013 and 2021 — a national record, West Coast having lost 43 straight between 1990 and 1994.

Hooker Jorian Tangaere scored the NPEC try in the 93-5 loss to Hawke’s Bay at Napier on July 24. The Coast experienced a different level of rugby against Ranfurly Shield holders the Magpies on McLean Park.

And so the Sky Blues’ 31-28 triumph against Poverty Bay in Round 7 of the Championship netted them the Anaru “Skip” Paenga Memorial Shield on the same day that their skipper, blindside flanker Hone Haerewa, won his 50th cap, loan player Peter Mirrielees made it 50 first-class games and the NPEC women won the Rerepuhitai Trophy against their Bay counterparts with 1500 in attendance.

The likes of All Black Sevens star Ngarohi McGarvey-Black and former All Blacks Nehe Milner-Skudder and Rico Gear — who many Coast fans believe scored a try within two minutes of his coming off the bench in the 34-19 win against Wairarapa-Bush at Masterton in NPEC’s last hurrah on November 6 — have relished the chance to wear the Sky Blue jersey.

Hone Haerewa wore it with such relish that he and Poverty Bay forwards Stefan Destounis and James Higgins were selected for the Heartland 15. Haerewa started against the New Zealand Barbarians at Taupo on December 5 and the Bay forwards came off the bench. Haerewa and Destounis were two of the three finalists to be Heartland Player of the Year.

Coast assistant coach Morgan Wirepa junior, forwards coach Laman Davies and manager LeRoy Kururangi deputised for Hosea Gear superbly last season and also in the head coach’s absence for the game against the Bush.

He was then better able to deliver quality information to the players and boost their mindset.

“I loved my time with the Coast, thoroughly enjoyed it and all of the challenges that we faced as a team,” Gear said.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the boys’ efforts and the sacrifices they made to set a platform and lay foundations for themselves.

“I look forward to seeing how they face challenges in the future and how they deal with those.

“This year was an amazing journey and experience for me. It was truly gratifying and humbling.”

Before all this came an amazing club season in which Uawa claimed the Rangiora Keelan Memorial Shield in only the second NPEC final to be decided in extra time.

That game at Te Kura Mana Maori o Whangaparaoa on Cape Runaway was played in the worst weather imaginable. The teams played a great game of rugby but gale force winds and blinding rain turned a normally firm track into mud, and such patriots of Uawa and their hosts Tihirau Victory Club as could attend, combined to make July 17, 2021, a great rugby occasion.

Jackson Reuben-Swinton, who served as Whetu Haerewa’s assistant coach to the Sky Blue women, refereed the game. He gives invaluable service to rugby, as do Hikurangi head coach Matt Richards, Eruera Kawhia, LeRoy Kururangi, Melvin Ashford, Harawira Matahiki, Peter Matahiki, Troy Para, Dave Newton, Victor Herbert, Ario Rewi, Shirley Mullany-Mato, Jordan Tihore and Tokomaru Bay native Isaac Hughes of the Poverty Bay Rugby Referees’ Association.

Uawa won the final 11-8 on what will be remembered as a day of rich reward for their true blue fans.

Their captain Sam Parkes’s incredible penalty goal from the junction of the left touch and 22 under sheets of rain — with extra time up — saw opportunity, skill and good fortune combine for the visitors to beat TVC.

Players, officials and supporters endured the unendurable to end the 16-game season on a high note. Tokararangi began 2021 as defending champions but TVC went through Round 1 unbeaten to claim the Kath McLean Memorial Cup for the first time.

The Victory Club also won the Jury Harrison Memorial Cup for Round 2 with a 5-7 win-loss record.

TVC at home beat Ruatoria City 22-14 in the 1 v 4 semifinal while Uawa upset Tokararangi 29-17 in 2 v 3 at Te Araroa Domain.

This margin is too narrow to contain or list every great event in Ngati Porou East Coast representative or club rugby, but on the eve of Cushla Tangaere-Manuel’s departure as NPEC chief executive and LeRoy Kururangi’s well-deserved elevation to that role, it is sad to note the passing of the union’s most capped player, Enoka (Morgan) Pohoikura Waitoa, two days ago.

He played blindside flanker, openside flanker, No.8, second five-eighth, lock and prop (on both sides of the scrum) in his 21-year career in first-class rugby.

The big man turned out for Hicks Bay, Te Araroa Combined, Kawakawa Combined, Tokararangi, Waiapu and Matakaoa sub-union, played 115 games in the Sky Blue jersey between 1979 and 2002, was player-coach in 2006 and represented Poverty Bay-East Coast games twice, once in 1992 and once in 1999.

He came from a rugby family.

Brothers Henry, Richard, Tui and Morgan Waitoa played for the Coast.

Condolences are offered to his family and friends for the loss of one of only three Coast centurions.

by Ben O’Brien-Leaf
Published December 31, 2021 1:10PM