Northland's premier rugby league team, the Northern Swords, have narrowly missed out on the North Island Championship title, losing in dramatic fashion to the Wellington Orcas on Saturday.
Both teams had been unbeaten over their three previous games in the five-team, second division competition, and playing in Otaki on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Northland team were cruelly punished through a last-minute try to the home team, who won 28-24.
The Orcas now play the South Island champions, the Otago Whalers, for a chance to play a promotion-relegation game against the bottom qualifier of the four-team first division. The Northern Swords reached this promotion-relegation game last year, only to lose to a team from Waikato.
Leading 10-6 at halftime and pushing their advantage to 10 points at one point in the second half, Northland were left to rue simple mistakes at crucial times which let their opposition back into the game.
The Swords scored with about five minutes to go in the game to put the pressure back on the hosts, but with a game-winning try as the hooter sounded, Northland's hopes of promotion were dashed.
"It was shattering to lose in that fashion," Northern Swords co-captain Daley Johnson said.
"Everyone was extremely gutted but we are all proud of ourselves, it was a long drive and it was on [Wellington's] home ground and they hadn't lost a game."
Due to a lack of funding, most of the Northland team had make the nine-hour trip in vans on Friday to Palmerston North before driving to Otaki on Saturday morning. It was the second long trip made by the Northland team this year, after they travelled down to Palmerston North to play the Manawatū Mustangs earlier in the season.
While he accepted the long drive may have had an impact, Johnson said it wasn't an excuse for the loss as the players felt good going into Saturday's game.
Johnson said his disappointment in the loss was balanced with fresh hope that the last two years would encourage more people to invest time and money into Northland's rugby league programme.
"I couldn't fault anyone for what they did throughout the campaign, we are just a little team from the north and to get that far was just a great effort."