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The Bears went into the game as favourites after an impressive debut season in the competition, while the Raiders had recently shown the ability to seize momentum late in the game and secure crucial comeback victories. Thus, the stage was set for an enthralling bout between the sides.
The first half was all the Dunedin Bears. Usually a second-rower, Reuben Katene impressed in his shift into the middle, charging into the line from kick-off returns and making countless dominant tackles in a rare showing at prop. Katene was well-supported by fellow prop Marcel Taani, who proved immensely difficult to take down, often having three or four defenders clinging to him when he finally went to ground. This foundation allowed five-eighth Owen Draper to take control of the game, and he was able to get the ball wide early in the contest, which showed the skills of Chase Stephens on the wing, using pace, footwork, and determination to find his way over the line twice in the first half. Micah Leipao and Ellory Fruean also put on powerful displays, busting through severaldefenders on their way to the tryline, to continue building the Bears’ dominance.
With the score 20-4 in their favour at half-time, the Bears could be forgiven for thinking they already had one hand on the trophy. However, the Raiders were familiar with this position, and were also confident in their ability to claw back into a game with a swing in momentum. Ten minutes into the second period, playmaker Tama Apineru sniped out of dummy half and over the tryline to rally the Raiders and initiate the early stages of a courageous comeback. A brilliant try from Willie Time followed soon after, his second for the match. Manassah Kutia shifted the ball to Time from a penalty tap and then Time fended his way through the line and scored in the corner. Kutia’s return to the side clearly bolstered the Raiders chances. His countless hit-ups allowed them to power through the field and his work on defence ensured it was one-way traffic for extended periods in the second half.
The Bears were battling to stay in the contest at this point, and when Garth Kinley and Steven Campbell-Paniona added tries to the Raiders’ tally, the scores were level. Campbell-Paniona’s successful conversion of his own try gave the Raiders the lead for the first time in the match, and it seemed as if they were set for another come-from-behind victory.
However, the Bears were not about to give up, and following a rampant run from Ellory Fruean, Owen Draper was able to dart out of dummy-half and score the match-winning try with under a minute left on the clock. A handling error on the very next kick-off drew the full-time whistle, and the Bears secured a thrilling victory. Bears withstand Raidersburst to seal title.
- Ricki Allan
Otago RL Premiership
Tries: Chase Stephens (2), Micah Leipao, Ellory Fruean, Owen Draper.
Conversions: Owen Draper (3).
Tries: Willie Time (2), Tama Apineru, Garth Kinley, Steven Campbell-Paniona.
Conversion: Steven Campbell-Paniona.