Tasman booked their ticket to the 2019 Mitre 10 Cup premiership final with a gritty display at Lansdowne Park on Saturday.
Their 18-9 victory over a feisty Auckland side who brought their ‘A’ game to Blenheim means the Mako earn the right to host the premiership decider at Nelson’s Trafalgar Park this weekend.
Standing between them and their first premiership title will be the Wellington Lions, who downed Canterbury 30-19 in the capital on Saturday evening.
Many pundits felt the Mako would find themselves up against their Crusaders region rivals in the final, but the Lions had other ideas, going out to an early lead then holding on against the inevitable Canterbury resurgence.
Wellington are a very dangerous opponent. The Mako beat them 45-8 in the opening round of the competition but, as was the case with Auckland who were also well beaten in round robin play, that result means nothing come play-off time.
The Lions are unpredictable – favouring unstructured, almost chaotic situations and have quality players capable of ripping defences apart.
Ball-playing forwards such as Asafo Aumua, Alex Fidow, Vaea Fifita, skipper du’ Plessis Kirifi and Teariki Ben-Nicholas possess both power and pace while Jackson Garden-Bachop, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Billy Proctor, Ben Lam, Wes Goosen and Vince Aso are as dangerous a backline unit as there is in the competition.
However, Wellington’s Achilles Heel is often their discipline and set piece consistency, areas I am sure the Mako coaches will be focussed on in the lead-up to the final.
Tasman may have bought their ticket to the “big dance”, but they paid a hefty price for it.
A lack of serious injuries has been a feature of the Mako campaign this year, but the rugby gods were definitely not smiling on Saturday.
The early loss of key loose forwards Ethan Blackadder and his replacement Jordan Taufua put the Mako on the back foot. If both are ruled out for the final that will impact the home side’s ability to bring big-match experience off the bench. They may also be without the elusive Will Jordan who limped from the field later in the match with what appeared to be a serious knee injury.
However, it was the team’s ability to handle adversity that saw Tasman through against Auckland and the Mako selectors have showed time and again that they have faith in their entire squad.
Co-head coach Andrew Goodman once again praised the efforts of his bench players against Auckland, despite the two early injuries affecting his replacement plans.
“One of our strengths has been being able to bring those guys on later in the game when teams are starting to tire, but I thought our ‘Sparkies’ still did an awesome job today,” said Goodman.
“That group of four or five that came on with about 20 [minutes] to go really changed the game.”
Pivotal to that situation was young forward Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta who replaced Taufua after 20 minutes. Usually called on as a lock, he turned in an inspirational effort on the side of the scrum, his defence being a highlight.
The fact that replacements Fetuli Paea and Hugh Roach made the breaks that led to the Mako’s two tries further underlines the impact this team is getting from the bench.
But ultimately their success on Saturday was based on relentless defence. Given the weight of position and possession Auckland enjoyed they should have been 10 points or more clear at half-time. Instead they trailed at the break, unable to breach the red and blue wall. As it has done throughout the season, Tasman’s structured and scrambling defence continually denied their opponent, creating frustration and uncertainty.
It will have to be on point again this weekend but, as they showed on Saturday, this Mako side certainly knows how to dig deep.
Now, in the union’s 14th year of existence, the Mako have a chance to make history.
It has been a turbulent, roller-coaster ride since the province’s humble beginnings in 2006, but the opportunity is there to sit proudly atop New Zealand provincial rugby, a remarkable situation to contemplate in such a short time frame.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When Tasman previously tasted NPC success, in the 2013 championship final, it was the boisterous home town crowd who provided the extra impetus which got the Mako over the line.
The crowd involvement in Saturday’s semi, both during the contest and on the field after the game, was superb. The players and management relish it, knowing it puts wind under their wings.
It’s time to pack T-Park again Mako fans.
WHAT: Mitre 10 Cup premiership final
WHERE: Trafalgar Park, Nelson
WHO: Tasman Mako v Wellington Lions
WHEN: 6.05pm Saturday October 26. Gates open 4.30pm.
WANT TO GO: Ticket pricing (excludes booking fees – $1.50 online, $2 outlets and gates)
Covered stand: all ages – $25
Uncovered stands: adult (18+) $20; children (5-17 years) $10
Embankment: Adult $15; child $5.
Patrons are urged to purchase their tickets online to avoid delays at the gates. Simply scan and walk through with pre-purchased tickets.