By PETER JESSUP
The Bartercard Cup is likely to continue in the same format for another season after a tight and intense final where the Mt Albert Lions sneaked home 24-20 over defending premiers Hibiscus Coast.
It wasn't sparkling football for the last big match at Carlaw Park, but it was finals stuff, no quarter asked or given.
A crowd of around 5000 enjoyed the last major occasion as the Auckland Rugby League board prepare to meet this week to consider developers' proposals for the central Auckland site.
Without support from the Warriors or the Auckland City Council, it is unlikely to remain as a football venue.
The Lions have been the big improvers in Bartercard this season, thanks to the return of their best players from 2001 and the addition of two good halves in Ben Lythe and Steve Buckingham. Their ability to handle the big occasion was the question.
They enjoyed the early territory and possession but couldn't convert that to points until midway through the half, when lock Sala Fa'alogo went over. But the Raiders replied when Lions fullback Lee Finnerty couldn't take a Daniel Floyd bomb against the sun and James Taavaga levelled things.
Lions bench player Kelvin Wright scrambled over to give them a 10-4 lead at the break.
The Raiders made it 10-10 straight after the break and with quick play-the-balls made back the ground the Lions earned through their kicking game. The teams went try-for-try through the second half, another Floyd bomb getting wing Joe Vaifale in to close the scoreline to within a converted touchdown, but it ended with the Lions a try in front.
The Whangaparaoa side threw everything into the last minutes, but, led by big defence from secondrower Wade McDade, Hutch Maiava and Fa'alogo, Mt Albert kept them out.
New Zealand Rugby League president Selwyn Pearson described the standard of football as "sensational" and said he would ask the teams to provide their thoughts on the competition as part of an end-of-season review, but believed Saturday's game proved it was healthy.
"One of the most exciting things has been watching the elevation of players from Bartercard to the NRL. The Warriors don't have one reserved grade - they have 12," Pearson said.
Lance Hohaia (Manurewa), Jeremiah Pai (Otahuhu), Karl Te Mata (Hibiscus), Evarn Tuimavave (Marist-Richmond) and Vinnie Anderson (Mt Albert) have been elevated this season, following Iafeta Palea'aesina, who came up from Hibiscus last year. Others, including Floyd and Cheyenne Motu (Manurewa), are in the development programme.
Criticism of the number of sides is likely to continue, given the tail-ender status of the Central Falcons and the OK-at-home return from Taranaki.
Pearson said he had to consider the strength of the game in the regions. The round-and-a-half format, 16 games, was introduced partly in response to the financial problems more games and travel meant and had worked well, he felt.
Sponsors Bartercard are in for another season with an option through to 2005. With Warriors backing - though they're among those who think the standard would improve with 10 or 8 teams - the competition's future seems assured. Warriors coach Daniel Anderson rates it as just as tough as the Sydney reserve grade, with the advantage of having a wider age and ability spread; maybe not as fast but just as skilful and physically harder.
Hibiscus Coast showed their depth with a double-up performance in finals day at Carlaw, winning the Fox Memorial final 44-40 over Otahuhu after overtime.
By PETER JESSUP