Five months ago, Waitohi doubted they would be able to field a division one team this season.
On Saturday afternoon they were crowned Marlborough sub-union champions after winning a riveting club rugby final 26-20 over Central at Lansdowne Park.
The Tohis’ tale of rags-to-riches in 2019 was completed on a slippery track, against a doughty opponent.
The match was tight throughout, both sides crossing the tryline once in the first half, while respective kickers, Waitohi’s Corey Bovey and Central’s Mitch Smith, added a conversion and penalty apiece to leave the scores tied 10-10 at the break.
The goalkickers traded early penalties in the second spell before each side came up with a second converted try.
Waitohi No 8 Taimi Fangatua was first to strike, scooping up the ball after a Central kick was charged down and running 45m to score in the corner.
The Blues replied almost immediately, prop Dusty Foley on the end of a short-passing movement initiated by Braden Stewart, Jesse MacDonald and Timoci Tavatavanawai.
With the scores locked at 20-20 halfway through the second spell the intensity rose, with mistakes and turnovers becoming even more critical. Bone-crunching tackles were commonplace as each side strove for physical dominance and the chance to force a mistake.
Smith missed a handy penalty attempt, then Bovey did the same, rare misses from kickers of such quality, but the Waitohi No 10 made no mistake a few minutes later from the same spot to give his side a three-point advantage.
Waitohi’s tactic of kicking long, chasing hard and applying pressure to their rival’s counter attackers paid dividends soon after when Bovey earned another chance at goal.
Again he was on target, leaving the Blues seeking a converted try to snatch a win in the final minutes.
They threw everything into attack but the Tohis have become adept at finishing close games this season, a mark of the culture in the team. When they got their hands on the ball they ran the clock down with a series of pick-and-goes before Bovey triumphantly booted the ball into the grandstand to start the celebrations.
Malimali, fellow prop Duane Aholelei, lock Dylan Burns, flankers Taine Cragg-Love, Jimmy Giles and Fangaua were outstanding up front for the victors.
Halfback Saia Tokai, Bovey, second five Tim O’Malley and fullback Fetuli Paea excelled in the back division for the defending sub-union champions, who have not lost against Marlborough opposition this year.
Central’s forward pack gave as good as it got. Front rowers Daniel van Wass, Foley and MacDonald led the way, along with flanker Braden Stewart who regularly pilfered ball at the breakdown. Lock Jesse Eising, flanker Vailua Kaloni and skipper Reyne Volavola tackled resolutely throughout.
Smith showed his growing maturity in the 10 shirt, while midfielders Jake Cresswell and Tavatavanawai were always dangerous, along with winger Nigel Satherley.
Afterwards Waitohi player/coach Jimmy Giles was full of praise for his side.
“I can’t say enough about this group … that was a game and half, all credit to Central. We knew we had to put points on the board and defend like there was no tomorrow and I think that showed. I couldn’t be more proud of our boys.”
He had special words for goalkicker Bovey, who held his nerve to strike two crucial blows. “He’s a clutch player, and it showed.”
“You practice all the time for moments like that,” said Bovey, admitting that he had ventured onto the No 1 ground twice in recent weeks to get used to the conditions. “I don’t think I was actually allowed on [the main ground], but I snuck on and had a few [kicks] … that helped a lot.”
He suggested the team’s all-hands-on-deck approach this season was “the Waitohi way really”. “During the cricket season I didn’t really believe we would get a team on the park this year. Then Jimmy pulled it all together, got us a side and look at us now … champions, back-to-back, it’s unbelievable.
“We just punch above our weight and believe in each other. It’s awesome, I love playing for this team.”
Manager Di Ivamy, a veteran of many Waitohi campaigns, affectionately known to the team as “Mum”, said she was part of the conversation as the club debated at the start of the season whether to just run with a division two team.
“We nearly pulled the pin … now I am so happy we didn’t.”
“We picked up some good players but also had a hard core of local players who fronted every week. We couldn’t rest them because we had nobody to step in, so the boys played with injuries week-in, week-out.”
She had special words for player/coach Giles. “He’s the glue … he does everything … he’s the president, helps do the funding, the club finances, committee stuff and I think he’s played one of his best years as well.”
Central skipper Reyne Volavola, while hugely disappointed, felt his team had showed a lot of heart.
“[Waitohi] have been the form team all year so we knew it would be an uphill battle to come in and topple them, but my boys did well to take it right to the wire. Finals footy is what you strive all year for so just getting here was an achievement.
“Unfortunately for us a couple of late lapses let them in and Bovey was on form with the boot as usual.
“We were hoping for a drier track to spread the ball a bit more but you can’t control the conditions.”
Scorers: Waitohi 26 (Losi Malimali, Taimi Fangatua tries, Corey Bovey 4 pen, 2 con) Central (Braden Stewart, Dusty Foley tries, Mitch Smith 2 pen , 2 con). HT: 10-10.
The Nelson sub-union men’s title was won by Waimea Old Boys, who accounted for Marist 25-23 in extra time, after the scores were locked at 20-20 after 80 minutes.