Waikato take down Tasman to claim Bunnings NPC crown

Waikato celebrate winning the 2021 Bunnings NPC Premiership Final match against Tasman in Hamilton. Photo: Getty Images
Waikato celebrate winning the 2021 Bunnings NPC Premiership Final match against Tasman in Hamilton. Photo: Getty Images
The stage was set, and Waikato understood the assignment.

A return home to host the NPC Premiership final after weeks outside of Hamilton in the union's 100th season, with the Farah Palmer Cup already locked away, everything was set up for a fairy-tale finish.

That's what they got, toppling the two-time defending champion Tasman Mako 23-20 at FMG Stadium on Saturday night.

It hasn't been an easy road for the Waikato side in recent weeks, with Covid-19 forcing them to vacate Hamilton and play much of their season away from home, on top of dealing with injuries in the squad. But with a change in Government restrictions allowing the team to return home and host the final, Waikato did not miss the opportunity to succeed.

"Just after the season we've had, I mean, seven weeks ago we didn't even know if we were going to be able to play slash train, let alone play in the final in front of our home crowd," Waikato captain Ayden Johnstone said.

"It's been a hell of a ride. And in our 100th year, with Hamilton doing it tough in lockdown, to come out here has just been really special. I'm so proud of this group – we've faced tougher battles off the field than we've faced on it, and I think it's just brought us closer together."

The desire to lift the trophy was clear from both sides early, as individuals went out making effort plays – from diving on loose balls to ripping the ball clean out of an opponent's hands.

As such, it took some time before either team really established themselves in the game. It was Waikato who did so, opening the scoring from the boot of D'Angelo Leuila about 10 minutes in.

That 3-0 scoreline could have been larger as Waikato enjoyed lengthy periods inside Tasman territory, but let opportunities slip and turned down the chance to count their points in threes for the opportunity at more.

Instead, it was Tasman who scored the first try of the game. After a Leuila kick for territory ran just long and went dead in goal, the Mako made the most of their scrum on the halfway line. Halfback Louie Chapman scooted away from the back, skinning defenders with his pace and a couple of big dummies, before sending Regan Ware away on the wing.

It seemed as though the Mako had taken the upper hand, but a loose ball in the Tasman attack fell nicely for Bailyn Sullivan to scoop up and run 60m to go in under the sticks untouched for Waikato.

With Waikato holding a slim three-point lead at the break and 40 minutes to find a winner, Tasman drew level through a Mitch Hunt penalty.

But as Tasman looked to be gaining momentum in their attacking game, again a loose ball was their downfall. Once more, Sullivan was in the right place at the right time when a ball went to ground, and had another long run against the play to give the hosts the lead.

Needing an injection of energy, Tasman looked to last weekend's game-winner Levi Aumua and he made an immediate impact. After a strong carry saw Aumua bump off defenders and make good ground, Tasman caught Waikato on the back foot and Quinten Strange crossed moments later.

However, it was the boot of Fletcher Smith that made the difference, with a 72nd-minute penalty the deciding factor. A couple of penalties in the dying moments gave Tasman the chance to get in position to draw level or steal the game, but a wayward lineout saw Waikato pounce on the ball and kick it into touch to seal the win.

Waikato 23 (Bailyn Sullivan 2 tries; D'Angelo Leuila 2 cons, 2 pens, Fletcher Smith pen)
Tasman 20 (Regan Ware, Quinten Strange tries; Mitch Hunt 2 cons, 2 pens)
HT: 13-10

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