TIHIRAU Victory Club (TVC) will go where none of their predecessors have gone before when they host Waiapu in the Enterprise Motor Group East Coast senior club final at Cape Runaway on Saturday.
The star-studded Waiapu, who dominated East Coast club rugby in the 1980s and early 1990s, are back on the big stage for the first time since they beat Tokararangi in the 2002 final.
“At the start of the year we never dreamed we’d make our first final and then get a home final, but the goal now is to go all the way and win,” said TVC second five-eighth Mo Mato, who also co-coaches the side with first five Verdon Bartlett.
“We know Waiapu are the favourites even though we are at home. They’ve got a lot of Coast Heartland players, including the Coast coach (Ngarimu Simpkins) and assistant coach (Rua Tipoki), as well as players who have been with Waiapu a long time.
“They’ve definitely got the experience and the form, and they’ve beaten us twice this season.
“It’s no good trying to target any of their individuals. They’ve got game-breakers all over the paddock. But beating Uawa, who also had rep players and tons of finals experience, in last weekend’s semifinal has given us the confidence to go into the game knowing we can be competitive.
“If we are competitive on Saturday and our supporters get behind us — as they have done all season — we’re in with a shout.”
Mato said TVC skipper and No. 8 Rob Keepa has been the stand-out player this season.
“We’ve got a young team with exciting players who could go on to play for the Coast. Floyd Haerewa (winger) — our leading tryscorer — and his brother Benny (fullback) have been sensational. Hoani Te Moana is another gifted young footballer.
“But Rob, who is from Te Kaha, has been our most consistent player. He’s been inspirational as a captain and coming off the back of the scrum.
“Our loosies — Awhio Durston and Charlie Simmonds (both Te Kaha boys) — have also been models of consistency, as has Verdon.
“Verdon’s our general in the backline but the battle for us this weekend will be to get enough ball. Waiapu have a formidable forward pack and that’s where they beat us before.
“We’re expecting to spend a lot of time on defence and that’s OK as long as we front up.
“We have two areas that might get us across the line on Saturday — our ability to counter-attack from anywhere on the field and the fact that we’ve got an all-local side whereas Waiapu have recruited a few players from outside the district.”
Mato admitted big-match nerves could be a problem.
“We’ve got to strike the right balance between treating this as the biggest game of our lives and giving it everything without the occasion getting to us.”
Waiapu are a club built on family tradition, including a father-son combination in former East Coast forward EB Poi — at 53 years old — and his son and player-coach Tripoli Poi.
They will look to their “big names” — hooker Simpkins and midfield maestro Tipoki — to lead from the front.
Tipoki and flanker Brent Ingram are going for the Bay-Coast double after playing for Pirates in last season’s Poverty Bay premier club grand final win against YMP.
Waiapu also have former YMP prop Frank Manuel and new Ngati Porou East Coast recruit Ziggy Fisifo, who is rated highly by the Coast coaches.
Waiapu manager Tom Reid said while these players were key to their bid to end a nine-season championship drought, the contribution from others such as the Poi men, skipper Hoto Te Whitu, Tojo Maaka, Rua Low and Rory Waitoa should not be overlooked.
Waitoa was a member of a unique occasion in 2005 when Waiapu fielded four father/son combinations. The then 20-old year played alongside his father and Coast stalwart Kahu (40).
Also playing that day were EB (46) and Tripoli (20), Regan Poi (38) and son Gary (18) and Neville Lyttle (46) and son Jason (18).
Waiapu are based at Rangitukia near the mouth of the Waiapu River in the heart of Ngati Porou country. It is the home and resting place of All Black legend George Nepia.
You can bet your last dollar Waiapu will leave nothing in the tank to bring home the Rangiora Keelan Memorial Shield from the Cape.