Rugby: Magpies a peck away from rugby utopia

By Anendra Singh

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Mark Atkins.
Mark Atkins.

It was cooking all right under the covered stadium in Dunedin but when the lid was lifted after 80 minutes of high-octane action, only one team had clearly earned the right to knock on the door of Premiership rugby next season.

Yes, the Hawke's Bay Magpies played out of their skin to burst the bubble of the Otago Razorbacks, 29-24, on foreign turf at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

No, the 20-19 Ranfurly Shield victory on September 1 wasn't a flash in the pan and, it seems, the southern venue has become a happy hunting ground for the Craig Philpott and Danny Lee-coached Hawke's Bay outfit on a campaign to gain promotion into the top tier of national provincial championship rugby.

The Mike Coman and Karl Lowe-skippered Magpies had absorbed everything the Razorbacks threw at them yesterday in their ITM Cup Championship semifinal match before grinding down the hosts for the right to lock horns with championship table toppers Tasman Makos on Friday in the 7.35pm kickoff at Trafalgar Park, in Nelson.

It mattered little that Otago fed off a vociferous crowd, some still high from the thrilling Bledisloe Cup dead rubber between the All Blacks and Wallabies the previous night in Dunedin.

In fact, it was because of the test match that the Hawke's Bay contingent had to grapple with uncertainty over travel plans in the week although it was a happy ending for the black-and-white brigade when they caught a direct flight to Dunedin on Saturday afternoon.

If that had had any impact on the build up to yesterday's semifinal then it sure didn't matter because the Magpies showed a lot of ticker to overcome the odds.

Losing inspirational captain Coman in just the 16th minute to a knee injury didn't faze them either.

Heads didn't drop when the Magpies trailed in the early stages of the game before a concerted effort saw them go into the breather 16-10 up.

No 8 Lowe simply assumed the mantle of captaincy with aplomb, something he has done in previous matches.

Otago coach Tony Brown had impressed they were over losing their grip on the shield to the Bay after just nine days following a 63-year drought.

The second-half scuffle, albeit remaining in the handbag phase, showed the hosts' intent and reaffirmed Brown's pre-match declaration that they were treating the cup semifinal as a much bigger deal.

If Otago points machine Hayden Parker found his mark then Magpie superboot Ihaia West replied with interest, outkicking Parker 19-9 against an opposition with a reputation of fighting back until the final minute.

Friday's final against the Makos, who overwhelmed the Southland Stags 49-28 in the other semifinal on Saturday, isn't just about etching the Magpies name on a piece of silverware.

No, it'll be about gaining promotion to the top-tier Premiership where many of the Bay faithful believe the Magpies should rightfully roost.

Will Coman be fit in the next five days to reverse the 18-9 defeat in his hometown the second time around?

It'll be a poignant moment either way for the captain if he doesn't take the field in his swansong match before jetting off to Edinburgh, Scotland, to enhance his career abroad.

Needless to say, the Magpies can easily use his predicament as a catalyst to realise a winter of accomplishment.

This time, of course, it'll be a case of as the crow flies - or should that be as the Magpies fly - across the Cook Strait to get the job done.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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