PUT your hand up if you've been surprised by Napier Pirate Rugby and Sports turnaround in Hawke's Bay's premier club competition this season.
You're not alone. But I was expecting it for one reason, the team who recorded just one win and eight losses during the Nash Cup segment followed by six wins and two losses to date during the Maddison Trophy segment has a bloke by the name of Pouri Rakete-Stones snr in the head coach role.
For those not in the know this is the same person who has represented New Zealand in three different codes - powerlifting, strongman and woodchopping. Now 52 and retired from all three Rakete-Stones, the father of the world champion Baby Black with the same name, regularly beat the odds on his way to numerous national and Oceania titles in powerlifting during a 14-year stint which ended when he was 30, numerous top-three finishes as a strongman from the age of 28 to 32 and multiple national woodchopping titles from the age of 34 to 42.
It's fair to say Rakete-Stones won't be short on first-hand experiences to pass on as forms of motivational ammuntion during his team talk before tomorrow's ninth-round clash against unbeatean defending champions Tanalised Napier Pirate Rugby and Sports at Park Island.
"If any team can beat NOBM it's us. While we're aiming for the win we know one competition point, whether it's one for finishing within seven points or one for scoring four tries, will be enough for us to book a semifinal," Rakete-Stones said.
"I couldn't be happier with the turnaround. Although we started slow I've always seen the potential in our squad. Look at our losses during the Nash round and you will see three of them were by two points or less," the former Hawke's Bay under-19 rugby team co-coach explained.
"We lost a lot of the senior players from last year through retirement. Some of the senior players who returned were under pressure to join other clubs but stuck in there and were rewarded with six consecutive wins during the Maddison Trophy round," Rakete-Stones said.
"We've got better as the players' trust and belief in our systems as well as each other has grown. Our players know how to play the systems and processes ... rugby is an easy game but people make it complicated."
It was a credit to Rakete-Stones' coaching credentials and organisational skills that his troops recorded two wins and a close loss in Maddison Trophy play while he was in Georgia watching the Baby Blacks at the under-20 World Championship.
One could easily label the Tamatea Park-based outfit's Maddison Trophy campaign to date as an against-the-odds one. Regular wing-centre Tione Hubbard has had to play halfback, regular loosie Nick Agnew has had to play hooker and regular loosies Mike Albert and Tama Cahill have done a fantastic job as locks.
Cahill, who promised a win against NOBM tomorrow a month ago, is out for the remainder of the season with a groin injury. Captain and No 8 Aaron McPhee and utility Jesse King will also miss tomorrow's game.
"We've got players replacing them who understand our systems. We're just treating it as another game, one we can win."
Although more of a league player than a union one during his younger days the Kaikohe-born Rakete-Stones did a lengthy rugby coaching apprenticeship before stepping up to the premier ranks for the first time this season. He coached from fifth to 12th grade level at the Pirate club, co-coached the Napier Boys' High School 1st XV and the Hurricanes title-winning Hawke's Bay under-16s before progressing to the under-19 ranks.
The Hawke's Bay Regional Council biosecurity worker knows that if his troops can stop the Green Machine from posting their 32nd consecutive win tomorrow it will be another impressive entry on his sporting CV. However his CV isn't a priority.
As Rakete-Stones said: "I'm just worried about getting the win or that one competition point."