Te Rarawa have tasted sweet revenge in claiming Northland's women's club rugby crown, defeating last year's champions Kaikohe in a thrilling contest yesterday.
Playing in front of over 200 people in Ahipara, last year's runner-ups proved their worth as victors through desperate, last-ditch defence in the face of an extraordinary second half comeback by the visitors to win 22-19.
Both teams were riddled with talent. Black Ferns Sevens veterans Portia Woodman and Tyla Nathan-Wong featured alongside current and former Black Ferns Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Aroha Savage, Kamila Wihongi, Rawinia Everitt and Cheryl Smith.
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After charging through a guard of honour from their club's men's team, the Te Rarawa women immediately went up on the scoreboard through hooker Ngata-Aerengamate who scored inside five minutes.
Te Rarawa, unbeaten in their three games this season, looked right at home in Ahipara as captain Krystal Murray scored her team's second try after 10 minutes. Savage, who played at centre, was dangerous running at Kaikohe's unsettled defensive line.
When the home side went up 17-nil after 23 minutes through another try from Ngata-Aerengamate, Kaikohe were staring down the barrel of an embarrassing defeat. Despite their best efforts, Kaikohe could not live with Te Rarawa's intensity early on.
Towards the end of the first half, Kaikohe had their chances but spurned any opportunity to score. A try-saving tackle from Te Rarawa's former Black Fern player/coach Rawinia Everitt on Kaikohe wing Manaia Webb kept the visitors scoreless.
However, persistence with ball in hand for the visitors paid off when, after one too many penalties, Te Rarawa's Narissa Fale was yellow-carded - giving Kaikohe the advantage in the remaining minutes in the first half.
After many attempts to break the Te Rarawa line, Kaikohe still didn't see reward for effort. The frustration was clearly true for Woodman who, at centre, made three huge tackles on defence which made onlookers wince.
Returning in the second half, Te Rarawa began with their trademark intensity and Savage's potency with ball in hand was rewarded with a try to extend the home side's lead to 22-nil after 50 minutes.
Facing a heavy deficit, 50-year-old Smith brought herself on at flanker as a last-ditch attempt to motivate her team.
It must have worked as minutes later, Woodman - who had been well-contained all game - broke the line, dodged defenders and brutishly ran through Te Rarawa fullback Alexandra Kingi to score her side's first points.
Woodman, one of the world's best female rugby players, wasn't going to stop at just one try as minutes later, the centre worked a silky backline move which saw her tear down the touchline, beating multiple defenders to make the score 22-12 with 20 minutes to go.
The dynamic centre was involved in her team's third try as they attempted a monumental comeback. Breaking the line, Woodman offloaded and Webb dived over the line to bring Kaikohe within three of Te Rarawa at 22-19.
What ensued was 15 minutes of enthralling finals rugby as Kaikohe, with their tails up, pressed hard against a tiring Te Rarawa defence. Much of the play in the last 10 minutes occurred in Te Rarawa's 22m as Kaikohe looked to take the lead for the first time in the match.
A flurry of late penalties gave Kaikohe a chance to attack from inside Te Rarawa territory. However, like their maunga Whangatauatia which towered over the grounds, the women from Te Rarawa held strong and avenged last year's loss to take the 2020 title.
"I feel tired but I feel great," Murray said after the final whistle.
Knowing they had to shut down the dangerous Woodman, Murray congratulated her troops on containing the Black Ferns Sevens star.
"We had a lot of inexperience alongside our experience within our backline, but they definitely stepped up to the challenge to mark Portia."
Ngata-Aerengamate, a 30-cap Black Fern, said yesterday's game was the hardest she'd played in a long time and felt it was a good sign ahead of Northland's second Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) campaign - which began in Kaikohe this month against Taranaki.
"It's definitely a level up from last year I feel, now that a few of the girls from our team and Kaikohe have had a taste of it, they now know what the level is for when we do go into the FPC."
Savage, a member of the 2010 World Cup-winning Black Ferns squad, said she was pleased to see her team go hard early and show resolute defence in the final moments of the game.
Everitt, who played over 20 games for the Black Ferns, was emotional after the final whistle. She claimed yesterday was her last ever rugby game and she was almost speechless to describe her feelings.
"I'm just absolutely proud of the ladies, just believing and sticking to the game plan," she said.
"They've been through a lot of life stuff this year and they actually used that to fuel their fire today, I think."
Fittingly, Te Rarawa's win came in its club's centenary year. Everitt said the result was a tribute to the potential of the region.
"When we came off the sideline, we had kids saying, 'I want to play with you next year', so that's what pulls on the heart, knowing that we've created something that people want to aspire to and it's right here in our backyard."
Had the Covid-19 pandemic not occurred, sevens star Nathan-Wong would likely have been playing for Olympic Games gold in Tokyo on the same day as yesterday's final.
However, the halfback from Ngāpuhi said yesterday's win was just as rewarding.
"Just to be here on this day with these girls is awesome, and to get the win is the cherry on top."
Smith, a fervent Kaikohe advocate, said she was very proud of her team for fighting back in the second half.
"Who would have thought at halftime Kaikohe would finish within three points, so I just take my hat off to the whole 22 [players], they just dug deep and it was great finals rugby."
Kaikohe captain Hikitia Wikaira said yesterday's game reflected the true identity of club rugby and she commended her team on a valiant second half.
Twenty-nine-year-old Woodman, who couldn't contain her pride to be playing her first game for Kaikohe after leaving the town at six years old, said it was awesome to see the fight from her team.