Northland's league community were treated with an absolute classic on Saturday as the Takahiwai Warriors took out the premier competition title by just two points.
Takahiwai went into the final looking to complete a perfect season after 13 wins from 13 games. However, last year's champions, the Otangarei Knights, stood in their way at the Northland Events Centre.
After a thrilling final 10 minutes, Takahiwai edged the win, 22-20. It was a fitting scoreline seeing as the Knights toppled the Warriors in last year's final by two points in similarly dramatic fashion.
Otangarei started the game playing into a blustery, cold wind which made any offensive moves by air almost impossible. Big hits and hard running went down well with a vocal crowd which made all the right sounds as both teams tried to establish dominance.
It was the Knights who struck first through quick-footed fullback Vincent Paul and with a missed conversion, led the game 4-nil with 12 minutes to go in the first half.
Takahiwai, who had been relentless whenever they approached the tryline this season, looked a little unsure in the early stages as they spurned chance after chance to break the Knights line.
However, the game's eventual MVP, Mike Hauraki, broke the drought for Takahiwai, crashing over in what seemed an inevitable try with just three minutes left in the half. A conversion from Levita Levita gave the Warriors a 6-4 lead going into the second half.
Things couldn't have gone worse for the Knights at the restart as they lost the ball on the initial hit up which gave possession back to Takahiwai, who were now playing into the wind. A few phases later, fullback Eroni Biukoto showed his pace to get on the outside of Knights defenders and put Takahiwai 10-4 ahead.
The early blow from Takahiwai obviously landed square on the Otangarei jaw as just minutes later, the Knights fell off four consecutive tackles to let Takahiwai captain Ross McFarlane in for his side's third try and extended their lead to 16-4.
All seemed lost for the Knights, especially when they lost one of their talismans, Sua Sosopo, to injury with 26 minutes still to play. But the game was flipped on its head as Otangarei scored two quick tries to reduce the difference to just two points.
Another error from the restart from the Knights let Takahiwai in again to push the score to 20-14, before Otangarei playmaker Sam Henry dived over between the sticks with nine minutes to go to level up the scores.
You could feel the tension in the air as both teams recognised the game was on a knife's edge. Two crucial mistakes from the Knights afforded Takahiwai a shot a goal which was narrowly converted by Levita to give them a two-point buffer.
That gave the Knights only a matter of seconds to run the length of the pitch to score and despite a last flurry of passes, Takahiwai shut down their last play and began their celebrations.
"It was a good, hard game, the momentum shifted both ways throughout the game," Takahiwai captain Ross McFarlane said.
"The reffing was excellent, I wouldn't agree with every call they made but it was fair both ways."
When the final whistle sounded on Saturday evening, Takahiwai coach Hori Tuhoro didn't jump around and rush the field like the rest of his team. He calmly walked over to the Knights coaching area to shake hands before slowly going to join his players.
With the emotion of a big season coming to the fore with the final win, Tuhoro was almost lost for words to describe his feelings, but he acknowledged his team for the work they had done.
"I'm just happy for the boys, they've put in hard work all year and there's been some off the field stuff that we've had to deal with over the last four or five weeks, but the boys have handled themselves well."
Otangarei coach Des Nordstrand said the final was an amazing exhibition for the community and hoped this would bolster the sport in Northland.
"It just came down to who wanted it the most on the day, we both went hard, I almost thought it was going to draw at the end, but congratulations to Takahiwai, they pulled it out in the end," he said.
"That's what league is, you've got a winner and you've got a loser, it was an awesome game though and if we get more games like that, league will pick up."
Otangarei captain Daley Johnson was proud of his team for their second half comeback and said this year's result would encourage more players to come into the fold.
"Most of the boys will stay for next year and we'll go hard again, we've got a few juniors coming through to play next year so hopefully that bit of youth will help generate our squad."