Heartbreak for brave Whalers

Otago Whalers Louis Tili (left) and Jong Hoon Lee knock the ball free from the hands of Northern...
Otago Whalers Louis Tili (left) and Jong Hoon Lee knock the ball free from the hands of Northern Swords player Jesse Epiha during a crucial National Championship second division match at the North Ground on Saturday. Photo: Linda Robertson
The Otago Whalers’ representative campaign has come to a cruel end. Saturday’s 26-26 draw with the Northern Swords means the Whalers finished the season unbeaten.

But, and it is a painful interruption, the Whalers will not go through to the promotion-relegation match against the bottom-placed National Premiership side. Otago and Northland shared the same points differential, as both sides defeated Wellington by two points. However, the Swords will head to Mt Smart Stadium to take on Waikato as they were deemed the National Championship second division winner due to having a greater points percentage overall. The points percentage is calculated by dividing the number of points scored by the number conceded and then multiplying that figure by 100.

The Whalers struggled to get into the contest at the North Ground on Saturday. Defensive lapses on the left edge resulted in  three tries being conceded in the first  20 minutes. However, they fought back through strong ball-running in the middle of the park and sharp direction from halfback Owen Draper and five-eighth Louis Tili.

Draper scored the home side’s first points under the posts, utilising some sharp footwork and strength to beat four defenders. On the back of some hard work in the middle of the park, particularly from Joshua McKenzie and Hagan Free, the momentum seemingly shifted in favour of the Otago side.

Tili took command as they started to lift and his kicking game proved too difficult for the Northland players to contain. Two further tries to star fullback Tama Apineru, one as a result of a steepling kick from Tili finding space, were enough to give the Whalers a 16-14 lead going into the halftime break. That lead was extended early in the second period of play, when Draper executed a cross-field kick to his winger, Chase Stephens, who rose above defenders to pluck the ball out of the air and dot down over the line.

The Swords struck back with two tries and a penalty kick to take the lead back from Otago but Apineru again came to the fore, breaking the line and tearing towards the fullback before passing to centre Willie Time who crossed over to the right of the posts. The scores were then level,  and remained so  as the full-time whistle sounded,  signalling the end of the game and the end of Otago’s highly successful campaign  in which it was crowned South Island Premiers and very nearly National Championship winners.

Hagan Free was duly awarded man of the match for the home side. Free’s efforts in the middle of the park this season have been outstanding, and in this contest he made countless tackles and upset the defensive line with strong ball carries that laid the platform for the Whalers attack.  Draper was also impressive, scoring a try and having a hand in at least two others, as was Tama Apineru, whose attacking presence in the backline was as strong as his efforts on defence.  Coach David Reedy said he was proud of the efforts of this year’s team.

"To miss out like that is heartbreaking for the boys, but at the end of the day we have to be happy with still remaining undefeated for the season."

Reedy will be hoping his side can go one step further next year after falling at the last hurdle in successive seasons.

- Ricki Allan

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