Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday, 2.45pm
Suburbs are primed to break a 24-year drought by lifting the Gallaher Shield in tomorrow's Auckland premier club final at Eden Park.
Their opponents are defending champions Grammar TEC, who have not often hit the high notes in 2016, having lost five times, but showed their big-match qualities with a fine 27-19 semifinal win over No 1 qualifiers College Rifles.
Suburbs were the better side in grinding down Ponsonby 18-7 in the other semifinal, and now contest a decider for the first time since Glen Climo's charges lost to Marist in 1996. Their last big triumph was the 23-0 shutout of Marist to win the 1992 Gallaher Shield, in a side that included the likes of Craig Dowd, one of 10 All Blacks out of the club.
Just three years ago, Suburbs were minutes away from reaching the final, but lost a dramatic semifinal at their Shadbolt Park home to University.
The 2015 season was not a happy one for the club, missing the top eight and placing 10th, losing the Portola Trophy final to Eden. But out of the ashes of that disappointing campaign was born a tight-knit group that has played to its strengths, defended solidly and had the astute kicking game of captain Carl Perry to fall back on. The MAGS schoolteacher has scored 156 points in 2016, and has racked up well over 500 for Suburbs since his debut.
"I think it's been a big change of attitude. Quite a few boys are back from last year and, after missing the eight, we might only have 10-12 at training. We knew we had to pull out a big effort in the first round this year to make the eight," says Perry. Team culture is much tighter now.
"Credit must go to the forward pack. We worked hard on our fitness in the off-season and they were the ones that were going to determine the amount of front-foot ball for the backs to express ourselves."
The pack has size, none more so than English lock Dean Williams, who is close to seven foot. He is strong aerially and in the mauls, and while one might have thought his height would imbalance the scrum - as he is considerably taller than locking partner Trope Yandall - there is nothing at all wrong with the Suburbs scrum. Workers such as hooker Leif Schwencke and flanker Luke Cunis, a former Kelston BHS captain, are key men in a robust pack that is happy to engage in an arm-wrestle if need be.
Perry says coach Charlie McAlister, who used to coach him at MAGS, favours a more open style based on sound systems, but Suburbs adapted well tactically to the wet and windy conditions last weekend.
Second five James Taufa is a bruising defender who runs straight and distributes well, while centre Varasiko Duisokosoko complements him nicely and has the wheels of the wings Bruno Tuivai, who has scored 10 tries, and Jona Sawailau. Blues player Lolagi Visinia chimes in from fullback.
Perry says the club feeling is now very strong and some of the proud old boys had a word to the team at a Monday night dinner at the club.
"After the semifinals, the clubrooms were just packed. I had never seen them like that, so it was a pretty humbling experience. We've put Suburbs back on the map, but there's still one more job to be done," says the No 10.
Perry started as a junior at Bay Lynn, now absorbed by Suburbs, back in 1996, the last year they contested the final. Some of his teammates were not even born then.
Perry himself will have tomorrow morning off from his coaching duties with the MAGS Under 15s. Geoff Moon, director of rugby at the school and something of a mentor to Perry, will take up those duties.
Suburbs know that Grammar TEC pose a huge challenge due to their playoffs and rep experience. The defending champs beat Suburbs 18-14 last month in a result Perry says might have been different had he not "left about 15 points off the boot out there."
But both sides know that scoreline counts for little tomorrow.
Grammar TEC may have hit their straps at the right time of the year, after an inconsistent regular season. They lost twice each to Ponsonby and Rifles. They will lean on the experience of lock Scott Scrafton, used sparingly by the Blues, and halves Jono and Simon Hickey.
Prop Tom McHugh has turf toe and is a 50-50 proposition for the decider, but should he not be fit, then Grammar TEC can call on a handy replacement in new All Black, Ofa Tu'ungafasi. Two of his brothers, Isi and John, are on the bench. Otherwise it will be the same 22 who beat Rifles in the semi.
Coach Joe Snee feels his side have turned the corner, winning five of the last six matches.
"Five losses looks bad, but we lost to the same teams twice, Rifles and Ponies. We've struggled to consistently put our top team on the field due to injury, but we seem to have come right.
"There are only 6-7 boys who were in the team for last year's final. There's a whole lot of them who are having a new experience and they aren't worried about what happened last year," Snee says.
Perry feels Grammar TEC, as defending champs, should assume the favourites' tag, but many neutral observers, keen to see the Gallaher head back west for the first time since Waitemata lifted it in 2003, would argue otherwise.
The curtainraiser at Eden Park, for the Arthur Bayliss Cup, will be the Under 21 final between Grammar TEC and Pakuranga. Kickoff is at 12.30pm,