NOT since the Joe McClutchie glory days of 1999-2005 has Ruatoria and Whakarua Park seen scenes like the one witnessed at the Meads Cup rugby final on Saturday.
Ngati Porou East Coast were behind 27-3, with 15 minutes to play.
They were down on the canvas and counted out by all but their most fanatical supporters . . . when they climbed off the floor, shook themselves and delivered a knockout blow to defending champions Wanganui, scoring four tries for an astonishing 29-27 win.
As assistant coach, skipper and second five-eighth Rua Tipoki said during the euphoria that followed, “you couldn’t have scripted a better finish”.
The first hint that blue and white fever was in the air came when the Gisborne Herald car with photographer Dave Thomas, myself and my wife Jennifer arrived at Tolaga Bay.
There were blue and white balloons on almost every gate in the main street.
There were signs supporting Coast player-coach Ngarimu Simpkins and his men, who had earned the right to host the first final since 1999, when McClutchie’s side beat Poverty Bay in the then-third division final.
From Tolaga Bay onwards, there were more balloons, more signs and the never-before-seen traffic jams and cars roaring past in a hurry to get to the game.
In Ruatoria, there was a supporters parade down the main street . . . a parade that could happen only on the Coast.
There were horses, sheep, dogs and pigs, all painted blue and white.
Life member John Manuel later rode his horse up to the grandstand when the medals were handed out.
The carnival atmosphere continued as we arrived at the ground 20 minutes before kick-off.
The place was packed, with cars five- deep around the outside of the pitch, the grandstand filling up fast, the music pumping and on the opposite side of the ground the “corporate box”, again East Coast style . . . flat deck utes, settees, deck chairs and people dressed in all sorts of blue and white costumes, including blue and white versions of the Manawatu “Bucket Heads”.
The match ball was flown to the park aboard the ECT rescue helicopter by Tomairangi, the teenage daughter of East Coast rugby stalwart, the late Jimmy Aupouri, former Ngati Porou East Coast Rugby Union chairman Bill Burdett and New Zealand Rugby Football Union vice president Ian MacRae.
Now . . . if only the game could live up to the surroundings. It did, and more, with Verdon Bartlett scoring the winning try with a minute to play.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
First there was the jersey presentation by Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou chairman Api Mahuika, who told the players “if the maunga (mountain) is clear, the pathway ahead of you is clear and Hikurangi is clear today”.
Then there was the sight of close to 100 supporters running on to the field at halftime, to lift their team trailing 20-3 with a stirring haka.
Whether the team heard or not doesn’t matter . . . the supporters wanted to let them know they were still their team.
When the referee blew his whistle to end an unbelievable match, the same delirious supporters swarmed on to the field to celebrate with their heroes.
When the players finally made their way back into the dressing room and were sitting down, there came a moment that manager Val Morrison said made the hairs on the back of every player’s neck stand on end.
“Andy Jefferd (East Coast’s former All Black) came into the dressing room and quietly told the boys that until this moment, playing for the All Blacks was the highlight of his career,” said Morrison, the team’s manager when the Coast won the third division under McClutchie in 2000.
“Then he said ‘not any more’, today was the highlight of his career.
“Joe also came in and spoke to the boys, which they really appreciated.
“There were people who thought that when Joe left the Coast, that was the end of East Coast rugby. I suppose in some ways that has been true in respect of results, hosting cup finals and making cup finals. But Ngarimu and Rua have restored the mana that the team carried when Joe was in charge.
“Today belongs to this group of players and the future is in their hands.”