31 October 2020
It was the much-anticipated battle of the two islands with the Northland Swords receiving the opening kick only to be hit by stiff Otago defence. The high intensity did not dissipate, as each tackle in the opening few sets for both teams backed with force.
The Whalers first chance off a set piece inside Swords territory produced points as a great backline move saw Fullback Tama Apineru cross over in the right corner. Try converted by Mackenzie Haugh opened the scoring at 6-0.
The Swords succeeded in retaliating immediately as their first set with the ball resulted in points. Halfback Jesse Epiha regathered a grubber from Levita Levita to score under the posts. Converted by Levita to even the score with half an hour remaining in the half.
A great set off their own goal line ended in spectacular fashion as once again a grubber saw the Northern Swords earn points. This time it was left-wing speedster Tevita Henare-Schuster chasing a long grubber to score in the left hand corner. Levita unsuccessful with the conversion leaving the score at 6-10.
Lock forward, Jake Fowler looked strong for the Otago Whalers early on, with decisive runs and hefty defence causing problems for the Swords.
A back and forth fixture saw chances for both Otago and Northland go begging, despite this, the Swords were the ones who capitalised, adding to their score through interchange Manaaki Tawhiwhirangi. A successful conversion saw the lead increase by 6 bringing the score to 6-16 with just under 20 minutes remaining in the half.
Momentum was clearly on the Northern Swords side as on the ensuing set, an offload from captain Ross McFarlane gifted Manaaki Tawhiwhirangi his second in under five minutes. Levita, who has kicked well all day converted to bring the score to 6-22.
Otago refused to quit as a few great runs gave them good field position on the Swords goaline. A cross kick was placed for left winger Saimone Samate who leaped into the air to catch the ball and score. The conversion was missed to bring the score to 10-22 as the half time hooter sounds.
Swords were the more clinical team in the first half, less errors saw them in better chances to score, hence the lead.
A slight drizzle greased the field as the teams returned for the second half, Otago used this to their advantage marching down the length of the field in their opening set.
The Whalers found themselves camped on the Swords goal line earning a number of repeat sets. Which finally resulted in points with Simone Fa’oso crashing over for the opening try of the half. A missed conversion left the score at 14-22.
Multiple errors saw both teams hand over possession in the centre of the park, the rain playing its part in this grand final.
The Otago centres played their part in this fixture, both Fa’aoso and Solia were a menace to tackle for the Swords.
A dropped intercept from Swords winger Eroni Biukoto almost saw the Northern side seal the game.
With under 20 minutes remaining the game remained at 14-22 as a combination of great defence and errors from both sides did not allow one another to take hold of the second half.
The intensity began to pick up in the latter stages of the half, led by right centre Tofatuimoana Solia.
With great field position the Whalers placed a cross kick in again looking for left winger Saimone Samate. However a great cover tackle from Eroni Biukoto saw him pushed over the touch line.
Again, the Whalers found themselves on the Swords goaline, and after a scrappy last tackle option the scoring drought was finally broken through lock Jake Fowler score, a well deserved try from the Otago workhorse. The try was converted to bring the score to a tantalising 20-22 with seven minutes remaining.
The rain causing problems once again, the Whalers hooker Troy Antsiss losing the ball in their own half to give the Swords great field position.
In a crazy sequence a fifth tackle grubber from the Northern Swords was blocked and recovered by the Otago Whalers. This was then kicked through to chase by right wing Piliu Tavake who would have surely score had he picked it up. Unfortunately for him an error saw the Swords hold on with two minutes remaining.
With less than a minute remaining the Otago Whalers go 80 metres in an attempt to win this game, a kick that went too strong saw the Northern Swords hold on to win the 2020 NZRL championship 22 – 20.
A nail biter of a game, wonderful conclusion to a great competition.