Club fervour not dulled by crisis

Taieri’s Nick Henderson pushes his way past Alhambra-Union defender Josh Taylor at the North...
Taieri’s Nick Henderson pushes his way past Alhambra-Union defender Josh Taylor at the North Ground in August. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Covid-19 threatened to ruin the entire club rugby season but instead it helped create the tightest premier tournament in many years. Sports writer Adrian Seconi looks back on his sixth year on the sidelines.

A wonky dropped goal.

The margins were thinner this year. The veneer a little more transparent.

The competition came so close to losing its defending champion before the playoffs.

Southern utility back Riku Kitahara catches a high ball while University outside back Jermaine...
Southern utility back Riku Kitahara catches a high ball while University outside back Jermaine Pepe moves in to make the tackle at Bathgate Park in July.PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Instead, University outside back Taylor Haugh knocked over a wobbly dropped goal — the first dropped goal in the tournament in five years — to seal a 19-16 win against Harbour in the final minutes of the game.

That same day, Alhambra-Union star back Vilimoni Koroi pushed a conversion wide which would have sealed an important win against Kaikorai.

The A/U Broncos duffed another shot at goal against Harbour the following week.

They were desperately unlucky not to make the playoffs. Had they got there, they definitely had the razzmatazz to create defensive problems.

Taieri claimed the title this year and set the benchmark. But it was inches ahead, not miles.

The Eels had one-point wins against Kaikorai, Harbour and Alhambra-Union and a tight game with University during the round-robin.

All four games could just have easily been recorded as losses.

The 2020 season really delivered on the drama.

Less is more?

The condensed format captured the public’s imagination and there appears to be some appetite to stick with the one-round format.

A shorter season seems to fit better with modern lifestyles and the teams which have typically started to struggle during the second round remained competitive throughout the campaign.

The games were a better spectacle as a result.

Dunedin hooker Naryan Strickland comes under pressure from Southern wing Riku Kitahara as he...
Dunedin hooker Naryan Strickland comes under pressure from Southern wing Riku Kitahara as he recovers the loose ball during their game at Kettle Park in August. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
But fewer home games potentially means fewer people passing through the bar, and that would hit the clubs in the pocket.

Conservatism will probably prevail but it is a worthy discussion point.

Trainspotters

Taieri’s 40-26 win against University in the final at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday produced a couple of interesting statistics.

It was the first time a penalty has not been scored in the final since finals were introduced in 1986. That had a lot to do with the record number of tries scored. There were 10 scored (University 6, Taieri 4) in all, which eclipsed the previous mark of nine in 1993 when the University side smashed Southern 51-8.

Taieri first five-eighth Corey McKay was the leading scorer this season with 101 points. He overhauled Kaikorai’s Ben Miller (92 points) during the final.

Southern’s Mackenzie Haugh was the leading try-scorer. He bagged eight five-pointers.

Veteran Zingari-Richmond loose forward Chris Bell has played more the 260 games and should overtake Erik Vaafusuaga’s record of 269 next season. Impressive effort that.

Awards

Best game: It is a tie. University unleashed a potent attacking game to unseat Kaikorai 28-21 during the quasi-quarterfinal at Bishopscourt.

Fullback Jermaine Pepe must have run for 300m that day. It was arguably the most outstanding individual performance of the season.

And Taieri fought back from 21-0 down to beat Kaikorai 32-31 in a thriller.

Best player: No-nonsense Taieri loose forward Nick Henderson was never more than a centimetre from where he needed to be.

Finals MVP: Taieri centre Matt Whaanga was overlooked for the Otago side that week and made a big statement in the final. He carried the ball strongly, offloaded well and ran through a big gap to score.

Best try: Pepe scooped up a speculative pass deep inside his 22 and weaved his way around four or five defenders on an 85m run to the corner. He was eventually collared by the Kaikorai defence but got the inside pass away.

Competition team: Taylor Haugh, Freedom Vahaakolo, Sala Halaleva, Kori Rupene, Peceli Malanicagi, Corey McKay, James Arscott, Sean Withy, Jack McHugh, Nick Henderson, Brodie Hume, Josh Hill, Sep Vaka, Brady Robertson, Jonah Aoina.

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