The Central Blues are back on top of the Marlborough rugby roost.
Ove the past few seasons the Blenheim-based club have had to sit back and watch as Waitohi assumed the predominant position, the Picton crew taking out the 2018 and 2019 finals.
However, on Saturday at Lansdowne Park, the Blues bounced back, and they did it in style.
They comprehensively beat Waitohi 31-10 in the division one showpiece, after seeing their division two side account for Awatere 36-24 in the earlier decider.
Both sides were unbeaten throughout round-robin play, setting the pace from day one of this, unusual, COVID-impacted season.
The division one final had all the ingredients of a thrilling encounter, set to match last year’s decider, and when Central turned at halftime holding just a narrow 12-3 lead after having the wind at their backs for 40 minutes, it seemed that would be the case.
However, the Blues had other ideas. Through punishing defence they maintained pressure on the Tohis, keeping them away from their favoured attacking zones, while looking for counterattack opportunities.
The first came on the 50 minute mark. A loose Waitohi pass near halfway was snapped by Central who found acres of space on the left, allowing winger Solomoni Vecena to touch down.
Despite this giving the Blues a 17-3 advantage, Waitohi knew if they could establish field position and score next they were right back in the contest.
However, as hard as they tried, that position and points never came, Central’s defensive line and breakdown work denying their rivals a chance to control proceedings.
And when the Blues got within striking range they were lethal. The final hammer blows were landed in a five-minute burst through touchdowns to Peter Vakaloa (after 65 minutes) and Nigel Satherley (70 minutes), both from close range.
A late try to the Tohis underlined their fighting spirit, but it was the Blues’ day. As they have done all season they combined forward and back attack seamlessly, providing threats all over the paddock.
Jesse MacDonald, Braden Stewart, Timo Vakaloa, Matt McCormick and Sitaleki Baker were formidable ball-carriers up front, while firtst five Liam Duncan, midfielders Jake Cresswell and Timoci Tavatavanawai, plus Vecena and Satherley showed pace and power out wide.
Waitohi, who looked slightly jaded after going into overtime to battle past Renwick last week, were well served by locks Andre Hebberd and Dylan Burns, flanker Taine Cragg-Love and evergreen No 8 Jimmy Giles. Halfback Karlos Tautari and first five Tim O’Malley were constant threats but their outsides were too often caught moving laterally.
In such a bizarre year it is perhaps fitting that the local rugby showpiece took place at a partly-deserted park.
Current Covid restrictions mean the division one and two finals were contested in front of separate bubbles limited to 100 spectators, a far cry from previous club finals where hordes of parochial supporters cheered their favourites on.
A strong first half effort, playing into the gusty breeze, allowed Central to dictate terms in the division two final. The home side led 15-12 at half time, and used the wind cleverly in the second spell to keep the gritty Tussock Jumpers at bay.
They led 31-12 through the middle part of the second spell, before Awatere made a late surge, two tries to replacement Sam Lunn pushing them close, but not close enough.
Outstanding for the victors was No 8 Logan Robinson, centre George Millar, winger Harry Boyce and first five Ra Tamati, whose intelligent kicking game dominated the second half.
Lunn stood out for the Tussocks, along with No 8 Flynn Struthers, loosie Wilson Meadowcroft, first five Grae Gilbert and midfielder Ofa Tuipuluto.
Division one final
Central 31 (Timo Vakaloa, Liam Duncan, Peter Vakaloa, Nigel Satherley, Solomoni Vecena tries, Mitch Smith 3 con) Waitohi 10 (Tim O’Malley try, con, Corey Bovey con). HT: 12-3
Division two final
Central 36 (George Millar, Ono Levu Temo, Harry Mackenzie, Logan Robinson tries, Ra Tamati 2 con, 4 pen) Awatere 24 (Sam Lunn 2 tries, Grae Gilbert 4 pen con). HT 15-12 Central
They said it …
Billy Guyton (Central coach): “I felt our leadership group was really good today, they kept things calm and trusted everything they were doing.
“The boys did the basic things well, holding our feet, looking for the space nice and early … they have improved a lot since the start of the season. They are playing more together and understand the game better … learning the basics on why you are trying to do something in the game. They already knew how, it was just having the confidence to do it all at the same time … realising that if you do your own job well it makes life a lot easier.”
Braden Stewart (Central captain): “I didn’t think we had enough points on the board at halftime … we had a few opportunities that we didn’t capitalise on but our defence was what we were most proud of today.
“We have really enjoyed each other’s company this year, worked hard at training … nutting out what we need to work on. But it’s just the keenness of the boys really, everyone can’t wait to get into it.”
Jimmy Giles (Waitohi player/coach): “At halftime we felt we were in a decent place, not comfortable though. We had done quite a bit of work into the wind to restrict them to 12 [points] and I felt that was enough to be very competitive, but they showed how good a team they are, putting us under pressure, creating opportunities and taking them. Hat’s off to Central, they played the perfect game plan really.”
James Marzola (Central division two captain): We just believed in our structure today … the young fellas coming into the side from the under-19s bought into it from the start of the season and we have just chipped away.
“We knew [victory] would come today if we protected the ball a bit better in the second half and were patient, and that’s what happened.
“Big ups to Awatere though, that was our most physical game of the year.”