A blistering second-half performance saw Eketahuna romp to a comprehensive 33-16 win over Gladstone in the grand final of the Wairarapa-Bush Rugby Union's Tui Cup premier division competition at Memorial Park, Masterton, on Saturday.
Down 16-3 at halftime and being outplayed by a fired-up Gladstone side enjoying a healthy advantage not only on the scoreboard but in territory and possession as well, Eketahuna's chances of finishing their 125th anniversary on a high note looked slim at best.
But the halftime message of coaches Wayne Roache and Kelsey Beales to "work harder and get excited" obviously worked as they were a completely different team in the second spell, running in five tries and 30 unanswered points in as perfect a 40 minutes of rugby you would ever expect at club level.
This remarkable transformation started up front. Whereas they had clearly played second fiddle to the Gladstone pack throughout most of the first half, especially in the tighter exchanges, the Eketahuna pack lifted the ante several notches, not only squaring the ledger in the possession stakes but gaining enough ascendancy in that area to allow a couple of sharp-thinking inside backs in Jordan Bennett-Davis at halfback and Sam Monaghan at first-five to take control of the tactical battle too.
And they did that superbly, either through kicking into space and keeping Gladstone on the back foot or by moving the ball wide and trusting in the pace and strength of players like big winger Paul Tikomainavalu to pose major problems for an increasingly tentative Gladstone defence.
Spearheading the hugely improved Eketahuna forward effort were flanker Nathan Ebbett, hooker Zac Wilkie and lock Dan Udy. Ebbett's two tries were a reward for his ability to be johnny-on-the-spot when it mattered most and he was also quick to the breakdowns and a determined forager for loose ball. Wilkie was both lively and constructive while Udy was always competitive in the lineouts and a hard grafter in the mauls.
The strength of their bench also played a big part in the Eketahuna comeback with Dan Griffin, who replaced the injured Brandon Young at lock late in the first spell, Richard Thurston and Shane Lochhead ensuring that the higher workrate was maintained.
Gladstone would have justifiably gone to the halftime break optimistic that the 13-point lead they had was a good enough cushion for them to snare the Tui Cup. Led by the hard-working No 8 John Stevenson, aided and abetted by Andrew McLean, Lance Graves and Andy Oldfield, their forwards had called the tune in such a manner that despite the breeze being to Eketahuna's advantage in the second spell it was difficult to imagine them making up the leeway.
And not only were the Gladstone pack going great guns but there was a reassuring confidence about the play of a backline well served by the inside trio of halfback Charlie Bargh, first-five Tim Griffith and second-five Sam Redmayne.The latter, especially, looked full of vim on attack, two or three times cutting a swathe through the Eketahuna defence with his purposeful running.
The Gladstone challenge not only faltered but evaporated in that second spell when Eketahuna found another three or four gears and bolted away to deservedly win by a convincing margin and take the premier division title for the first time since 2005.
Nathan Ebbett (2), Paul Tikomainavalu (2) and Sam Monaghan were the try scorers for Eketahuna and Tom Meuli added one conversion and two penalties.
Tim Griffith scored the sole Gladstone try and Andrew Fell landed three penalties and a conversion.
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