Waikato have capped their crazy centenary year in the most ultimate style, claiming the NPC Premiership title with victory over Tasman in a breathtaking final in Hamilton on Saturday night.
In a Covid-19-hit campaign which forced the Mooloos into six weeks on the road in order to save their season, they triumphed 23-20 in an absolute nailbiter at FMG Stadium Waikato against the two-time defending champions.
It is a third title for the union, on the back of triumphs in 1992 and 2006. Fifteen years ago in that decider first-year Mooloos coach Ross Filipo was playing for Wellington, while Liam Messam mirrored his appearance off the bench, this time in a 99th appearance for the province in his first game since lockdown.
In what was Waikato’s first home game in two months, having had to base themselves briefly in Cambridge then Tauranga, the cowbells were music to the players’ ears, as a crowd restricted to under 6000 burst into raptures when Nick Briant called fulltime on the edge-of-your-seat finale.
* The perfect 10, Taranaki claim NPC Championship with win over Otago in final
* All Blacks urged to be ruthless as Sam Whitelock hails Sam Cane’s leadership
* Black Ferns rookies, best mates Maia Roos and Liana Mikaele-Tu’u shine on first tour
Centre Bailyn Sullivan scored both the home side’s tries, each of them individual runaways from inside his own half, as the home side produced enough to overcome some untidy handling errors, as their powerful scrum proved a key.
Down 13-10 at the break, Tasman co-captain Mitchell Hunt levelled things back up from the tee six minutes into the second stanza, but less than two minutes later the hosts were back in front when Sullivan had the second of his stunners.
With referee Nick Briant just a matter of a few seconds prior having called advantage over for a knock on, an awful pass fired forward from the hands of Alex Nankivell was swooped on by the Waikato midfielder, who cantered 55 metres.
When Hunt soon after missed a sitter near the sticks – perhaps justice served after a forward-looking pass in the lead-up play – the momentum was well and truly with the hosts, and with their rushing defensive line, the Mako weren’t allowed to be their usual slick selves.
But one storming run from hulking reserve midfielder Levi Aumua changed all that, hammering the visitors onto the front foot and seeing co-captain Quinten Strange go over with 14 minutes to play, with Hunt’s conversion from handy range tying things up at 20-20.
Waikato had their own bench impact, though, including co-captain Fletcher Smith, and when the replacement first-five knocked over a 72nd minute penalty, his troops had their noses back in front.
They then thought they’d won it three minutes later when Samipeni Finau stormed through and went over untouched, celebrating with lofted arms before finally putting the ball down, only for Briant to call on TMO Shane McDermott and the faintest finger touch of Liam Coombes-Fabling meaning a knock on and the try being rubbed out.
But from the resulting play, Waikato earned themselves yet another scrum penalty, and then set up camp in the Mako 22m. They spurned another shot with a minute to play and while Tasman got a last-gasp chance to get themselves upfield, a stray lineout three minutes after the siren put paid to any miracle.
Earlier on, points were slow to come – just three in the first 25 minutes, to be precise – with both teams feeling one another out through an early kicking duel.
D’Angelo Leuila opened the scoring off the tee in the ninth minute, soon after he made a great charge into the Tasman 22m, but then missed his second attempt, and also overcooked what looked like being a well-executed kick to the corner touch.
Waikato were camping in Tasman territory but couldn’t make it count, turning down another shot at goal but then being unable to get the ball back out of a midfield maul.
And then, completely against the run of play, the Mako found the opening try of the game in the 27th minute, in quite sensational style.
From a midfield scrum, halfback Louie Chapman went on a sensational run, selling dummies which were snapped up at bargain prices by Waikato defenders, before he sent Regan Ware on a 25 metre blitz down the left touch, with the All Blacks Sevens speedster bursting through the clutches of two players to score.
The Mooloos responded just five minutes later, though, and in equally eye-catching fashion, as a stray Hunt pass hit the turf and bounced beautifully for Sullivan to snap up, as the newly-recruited Hurricane showed great gas to go 60 metres.
Hunt levelled things back up from the tee three minutes before halftime, but then with a powerful scrum shunt after the siren, Leuila banged a shot over from 40 metres to give the hosts a slim lead at the break.
AT A GLANCE
Waikato 23 (Bailyn Sullivan 2 tries; D’Angelo Leuila 2 con, 2 pen) Tasman 20 (Regan Ware, Quinten Strange tries; Mitchell Hunt 2 con, 2 pen). HT: 13-10