RUGBY - POVERTY Bay coach Grainger Heikell says tomorrow’s local derby against neighbours Ngati Porou East Coast is the game his players have been looking forward to all season.
When you check the record books it is not hard to see why. In the past 11 encounters between the sides, the Bay have won 10 and probably should have made it all 11 in last season’s Heartland game at Tolaga Bay.
With Heikell’s men ahead 22-13, Bay lock Api Ratuniyarawa could have made it 27-13 when gifted what should have been a five-pointer in the 38th minute.
From a Coast lineout three metres from their goal-line, the ball bounced invitingly into the big Fijian’s hands over the tryline. But instead of grounding the ball, a confused Ratuniyarawa ran across the dead-ball line.
The Bay returned to winning ways this year, beating the Coast 42-27 in the inaugural John Heikell Memorial Trophy at Ruatoria.
Despite history being on the Bay’s side, Heikell is claiming underdogs status.
“We haven’t played anything near as well as we can this season and the Coast are second on the table,” Heikell said. “But the local derby is always a big game and it’s an opportunity for us to knock over one of the top teams.”
The Coast are assured of a place in semifinals of the Meads Cup top-four playoffs but a win tomorrow would guarantee them a home semi.
A Bay win could earn them a home semi in the Lochore Cup and they would also retain the Skip Paenga Memorial Trophy, which is up for grabs every time the Coast play the Bay in Gisborne.
“There’s a lot of permutations for both teams but we can’t get caught up in that,” Heikell said. “All our focus is on tomorrow’s match.”
Coast hooker and coach Ngarimu Simpkins was also not concerned with “ifs and buts or the favourites tags”.
“We’re focusing more on our execution at breakdowns and set pieces,” Simpkins said. “The forwards have been working hard and have matured over the season, and we want to give our backs some quality ball.”
Despite big wins last weekend both coaches have made changes.
Winger David Philander has recovered from an ankle injury that forced him out of the Bay’s 59-29 victory over Thames Valley. He replaces Pamona Samupo, who drops to the reserves.
Heikell has bracketed props Simon Versteeg and Campbell Chrisp. Versteeg has been first-choice but was sick last week, opening the door for Chrisp.
The Coast beat King Country 56-24 at Ruatoria but No.8 Morgan Wirepa junior, a late withdrawal through injury, returns in place of Frank Taiapa.
With both sides committed to running rugby, supporters can expect plenty of tries. That could put the pressure on goalkickers — Bay captain and first five Scott Leighton and Coast No.10 John Semple.
Leighton has the advantage in experience and is a veteran of local derbies. His goalkicking was the difference when the Bay came from 17-6 down to win at Ruatoria on June 3. The teams scored five tries apiece but Leighton potted four conversions and three penalties.
Northern Irishman Semple is appearing in his first derby but is unlikely to be overawed by the occasion, having played in similar matches in Ireland.
The Bay scrum dominated much of the pre-season match but face a new-look Coast pack in which prop Ziggy Fisihoi, lock Everard Reid and Simpkins have been stand-out performers.
However, the Bay forwards have not been bettered by opposing packs this season and while they might not have the individual brilliance of their Coast counterparts they will not take a backward step.
Both backlines are stacked with gamebreakers — none more so than Coast skipper and second five Rua Tipoki.
The maestro midfielder has been inspirational this season although, as always, plays down his contribution.
“I’m just one player in a good team,” Tipoki said. “We’ve got players in every position who can score tries and so have the Bay. It should be a great game.”