League: 'Underdogs' tag just doesn't fit

By Doug Laing

It may be a sense of gamesmanship but when the manager of the favourites says "we're the underdogs" the punter can get the drift that there might just be one hell of a game in store.

The modesty comes from Tamatea Arikinui stalwart John Tawhai, whose club, no matter what anyone says, has to the favourites to win the Hastings - Heart of Hawke's Bay Rugby League Hawke's Bay Premier final at Bill Mathewson Park, Hastings, tomorrow.

Tamatea haven't been beaten in two years, they're going for win No18 in a row, including eight straight this year, they're defending champions, they've reached the Hawke's Bay spring-season final for an eighth time in its 12 years, and they're going for a fifth title in the same time.

The Outkast Sports club has been around just three years, and after winning the Reserve grade title in their first year made last year's Premier final. But they were beaten, and have lost twice this season.

The factor that makes Tawhai's response pertinent is that the spring-season concept used in Hawke's Bay for rugby league since 2001 has attracted numerous players coming off the back of a rugby union season who are fit for action.

The nuances of the 13-man code may not be evident for some time, but over the years a sharp lift in capability has come near playoff time.

It helps lift the standards to some of the better rugby league at club level in New Zealand outside Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The spring competition stems from Sport Hawke's Bay concerns that rugby league could have gone into recess in the region when there was no competition in the millennium year.

The regional sports organisation fostered the establishment of a spring competition the following year, and Tamatea, winners of the most recent Hawke's Bay final in 1999 and having played the Manawatu competition in 2000, backed-up favouritism with victory in the final over new club EIT Students.

In 2002, Napier's Maraenui Rugby and Sports Association launched the spring competition at about a fortnight's notice when it became evident the all-but recessed Rugby League Hawke's Bay was not in a position to do so.

A 10-team competition was run, attracting more than 300 players, finishing in November, and followed by the reforming of a RLHB board, which has since run Spring-season competitions each year in Premier, Reserve and other grades.

Attempts have been made to revive a winter competition, a small competition taking place last year but dropped this year, when there was a competition in neighbouring Gisborne Tairawhiti, and a Western Alliance from Manawatu to Taranaki, won by Dannevirke club Dannevirke Tigers.

Hawke's Bay is not alone in playing rugby league in the spring however. The Otago competition has been held over recent weeks and ended with a final last weekend.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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