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It had been 53 years since the last Otago rugby league representative side played against Wellington in Wellington.
The contest was fierce, with both sides looking threatening with ball in hand, resulting in a high-scoring affair. The Orcas scored first, but it was the Whalers who had the early ascendancy. Shooting out to an 18-6 lead in the first half, they looked to be in full control. They managed to capitalise on the Orcas’ errors, including when fullback Finn Langdale latched on to a wayward cross-field kick from the opposing five-eighth and then proceeded to sprint the length of the field to score in the right corner. However, the Orcas returned serve late in the first half by pouncing on some of the Whalers’ mistakes, and scored two tries to narrow the gap to 18-14 as the whistle sounded for the halftime break.
The second half was a tit-for-tat try fest as both sides exploited defensive lapses to notch up tries with ease. Man-of-the-match Willie Time opened the accounts just a minute into the second half when he crossed the line for the first of his two tries, but the Orcas struck back soon after to keep the Whalers at bay. Time was strong for the Whalers, carrying the ball into the line and using some elusive footwork and strong fends to pierce the line on occasion. He found support from fellow winger Mikal Tuari, who also stood out for his side, particularly on kick returns, where he was able to cart the ball back into an unsettled defensive line and exploit any weaknesses he could find.
Another brace of tries to Wellington had Otago on the wrong side of the scoreline and when it again scored in the left corner, it appeared that the Whalers might have lost control of the momentum. However, the bench provided a second-half surge in the form of props Marcel Taani and Benny Rumble, who took the field and made an immediate impact on both defence and attack. Taani’s strong ball carries helped lay the platform to launch and Rumble’s solid shots on defence kept the Orcas players under wraps in the middle of the park.
Tries to Tuari, Jong Hoon Lee and Time allowed the Whalers to level the score at 36 apiece and then, with just seconds left on the clock, the Orcas were penalised for stripping the ball from Time’s hands in the tackle. The Whalers elected to take the kick, despite it being a difficult one on the angle, on the right side of the field, into the wind and with a right-footed kicker. Despite the odds seemingly being stacked against him, Louis Tili stepped up to the plate and, much like he did earlier in the season against the Aoraki Eels, slotted the kick perfectly to seal a thrilling win for the Whalers in what was an absolute seesaw contest.
The win, in the Whalers’ first game of the national championship, sets up this weekend’s game against the Northern Swords as a winner-takes-all contest for the right to take part in a promotion-relegation match for the national premiership at Mt Smart Stadium on October 6.
In other local rugby league news, the Otago University Rugby League Club won the New Zealand University Nines tournament in Wellington last week, taking out the final 17-14 against Auckland’s FIG Barbarians. Seven players from the University side were named in the wider NZ Universities squad for a tour to Amsterdam in 2019. They are Ricki Allan, Tyson Ball, Jong Hoon Lee, Te Marino Huriwai-Briggs, Finn Langdale, Josh McKenzie and Josh Thompson.
- Ricki Allan
Otago Whalers 38
Mikal Tuari 2, Willie Time 2, Finn Langdale, Benjamin Hanara, Jong Hoon Lee tries; Louis Tili 3 goals, 2 penalty goals
Wellington Orcas 36
Greig Dean 3, Lui Afamasaga 2, Dane Cooper, Joey Oti, Aki Tuangalu tries; Aaron Whitikia 2 goals
Halftime: Otago 18-12
Referee: Simon Taylor