South Zone Maori 5 North Zone Maori 15 (ht 5-5): The Johnny Isaacs Trophy tourney did not go according to the script when the North Zone Maori broke a decades-long tradition of domination held by their South Zone counterparts by winning an intense confrontation at Toll Stadium on Saturday.
The long-running one-day tournament was played out at high noon in remorseless late summer heat, as a curtain raiser to a relatively inconsequential pre-season Super Rugby affair watched by a crowd some estimates put at 4000 by the end of the day. However, those who arrived solely for the 'main event' missed a full-blooded game of Maori rugby which blew the headline act well off the stage.
The South Zone drew first blood before the North Zone replied with a try to captain Buster Tahere (ex Kaikohe, now Mid Northern), leaving a deadlock at halftime. The North Zone came out the stronger in the second half, a try to Kaeo's Matarae Tauroa (named the Bay of Islands MVP last season) and subsequent conversion by Moerewa halfback Kadin Te Nana extending the lead to 12-5. Keeping up its best-form-of-defence-is-attack policy, the North Zone pressure resulted in a penalty coolly converted by Okaihau 18-year-old Thomas Smith from the sideline with time nearly up on the clock to put the seal on a rare and remarkable victory.
The match eventually finished 20 minutes or so earlier than planned, only 60 minutes in all played after a South Zone Maori player was carted off to hospital having broken his leg in sickening fashion, fairly earlier on in the first half, from being buckled and blown over by onrushing players. While he would be the last man to admit this, the result was another notch in the belt for North Zone coach Shaun Haynes, adding to a successful defence of the Harding Shield by the Bay of Islands reps under his guidance last year.
"We had a large squad, plenty of good morale," Haynes said afterwards. Apart from those mentioned above, other standouts included Moerewa/ Northland prop Justin 'Juddy' Davies who came on with considerable impact in the last quarter despite carrying a knee injury niggle: "He gets a lot of respect from the players", Whiria Meltzer at centre: "Made some good breaks and a couple of really good tackles, just about knocked them out"; as well as 2nd five Warren Dunn, Kerikeri's Ace Barlow "solid on attack" from fullback, youngblood Byron Yakas, and Kohukohu's flanker Alan Guest and prop Rodney Shepherd.
The turnout on the day - after only two reasonably attended trainings beforehand - was a pleasant surprise, said Haynes, and most were fit, "full credit to them". Both sides had at first only been allowed 22 players but when the South Zone coach also arrived with strong numbers, Haynes and counterpart Darryl Pita agreed to field 30 players each and give everyone a run. As for having to reluctantly turn away several other latecomers, Haynes said the huge interest in the match indicated passion for the Maori game was still strong in the Far North. He also noted that some who ran out for the South Zone - e.g. Kariaitiana Vette Welsh - had actually grown up playing in the Far North and said players should treat the Johnny Isaacs as a 'State of Origin'.
Power shifts north
The outcome combined with the Bay of Islands domination of the Harding Shield for the past two years suggests the balance of power in Northland rugby has shifted. The North Zone coaching staff - e.g. Haynes, assistant coach (father) David 'Hurricane' Haynes, manager Raz Poa and BOISRU chairman Brent Hewitt - were last seen maneuvering the impressive Isaacs trophy away from Toll Stadium on Saturday afternoon, side-stepping security and protocol very neatly under the pretence they wanted to take some photos with it.
In reality, it was going to taste the air in the true Far North for the first time in years.
In age-grade Johnny Isaacs games played at nearby Old Boys RFC, the North Zone under-16s won their encounter convincingly 62-0, the North Zone under-19s won 24-10, while the North Zone under-14s lost 35-25. Players from all the Maori teams - i.e. playing three age-grade matches and the main men's and a women's match- will be selected into four Northland rep sides contesting the Northern Region Maori rugby tournament. Northland has already secured two home games of a three-week series, with the final being played in Auckland. The Northland Maori men's squad will be named in Thursday's Age.
The Johnny Isaacs match curtain-raised the Super Rugby pre-season game between the Blues and the Waratahs, eventually won by the Blues 40-36 thanks to a late try by Peter Saili, his second of the game.