The Gallaher Shield, symbol of Auckland premier club rugby supremacy, boils down to an east Auckland derby for today's final at Eden Park.
Pakuranga should warrant favouritism over University, having proven the most consistent team over 16 matches, winning the first round Alan McEvoy Memorial Trophy and having dropped just one game. In the playoffs, they defeated Waitemata and 2012 champions Grammar-Carlton, so appear primed for their first-ever crack at the title in 48 years.
Guided by first-year head coach, former All Black Pita Alatini, Pakuranga have built themselves into a force to be reckoned with in Auckland rugby, firstly under Wayne Pivac (2010-11) who hauled them into the semifinals and won a Waka Nathan Challenge Cup pre-season title plus the Auckland sevens crown. Paul Feeney coached them to the Jubilee Trophy in 2012 and Alatini has continued the good work, centering their play around a parsimonious defence, a solid set-piece and some attacking strike-power in the form of Malakai Fekitoa and new Auckland squad member Aula Silipa. Tom McCartney will likely start at prop, with Blues bookend Sam Prattley, and support from flankers Joe Edwards and the tireless Dave Whitecliffe-Davies.
Varsity are one of Auckland's oldest clubs, blowing out 125 candles next month. They have won 17 premier titles since 1914, but none since 1997. They have reached four finals since then, the last in 2009, when they succumbed to Ponsonby in the midst of an eight-year title streak.
Fourth-year coaches Jim Dickin and Mark Kennelly took University to third qualifying spot despite a severe injury toll, which includes reps Teddy Stanaway, Liam Steel, Wyatt McKay and inspirational halfback Dave Ormrod, the latter breaking his cheekbone in a rugged 20-19 semifinal victory over Suburbs last weekend. Central to Varsity's game plan is workaholic hooker Kurt Eklund and loose forwards Sean Polwart and Sean Brookman. In midfield, Mike King offers plenty of thrust. There was a chance the club's newest All Black, Steven Luatua, would front if he had recovered from a Super rugby niggle.
University had a slow start to the 2013 season but came home with a wet sail, highlighted by last-gasp victories over Grammar-Carlton, Ponsonby, Marist and Suburbs in the last two months. They have the Sir Fred Allen Memorial Challenge Cup locked away in their Colin Maiden Park clubrooms, but would dearly love the big one.
University also features in two other finals today. The premier reserves face Marist, while the Under 20s clash with College Rifles. Marist and Grammar-Carlton meet in the Under 21 decider, which is the curtainraiser at Eden Park.