A spirited Takahiwai Warriors couldn't hold off a fast-finishing Hikurangi Stags as they took out the Northland rugby league premier final at Toll Stadium 36-26.
Yesterday's final score flattered Hikurangi a bit as the game was level at 26-26 with eight minutes to go, but two late tries to the Stags got them over the line and at the final whistle both sides knew they had been in a battle.
But after 80 tight, hard-fought minutes it was the Stags that ran out winners, pulling away from the Warriors and scoring the knock-out blow right on full time.
Hundreds of fans from both teams yelled their support from the grandstand as the game kicked off in sunshine, with rain clouds threatening.
Both sides started well, probing each other's defensive line before Takahiwai stand-off Kyle Hool scored under the posts after six minutes, then converted his own try for a 6-0 lead.
Some rugged defence from both teams saw an arm-wrestle develop as they struggled to get any advantage until Hikurangi centre Caleb Henare went over after 26 minutes. The try was converted by lively No6 and Stags' co-captain Joe Rau, who was probably the only difference between the two teams as his strong running often saw him break the first tackle.
Ill-discipline from Takahiwai saw Hikurangi getting two successive penalties that saw them going from their own 10-metre line to score through hooker Dean Schreurs, with the conversion from Rau to make the score 12-6 to Hikurangi.
The first-half action didn't end there, though. The Warriors were mixing up their kick offs and immediately got the ball back from the kick, rumbling the ball up through the forwards before No 14 Moses Cooper scored out wide to make the score 12-10 at halftime.
The game threatened to get out of control at times with some spiteful play countered by some rugged defence from both teams and some smart attacking play.
Within minutes of the restart Hikurangi centre Henare scored again, with Rau again converting to make the score 18-10.
After about 52 minutes Hikurangi winger Joachim Edmonds got sent to the sinbin for 10 minutes for an illegal tackle, but despite some sustained pressure Takahiwai couldn't make the one-man advantage count, with a Warriors' try ruled out in the corner after a forward pass.
Within minutes of Edmonds getting back on the pitch Takahiwai stand-off Hool did a wonderful kick just out from the Stags' line where fullback and co-captain Hori Tuhoro caught the ball and fell over the line to make it 18-14 and put the pressure back on Hikurangi.
The Stags refused to buckle, though, and on 60 minutes Henare crashed over again to make it 22-14 and it looked as if they had pulled away from their opponents.
However, Takahiwai showed the strength and determination it is known for with No 10 Para Murray rumbling through four tackles to crash over just to the left of the posts, and Hool converting to make the scores 22-20 with almost 20 minutes to go.
Minutes later Takahiwai pulled ahead after some excellent work from Hool, who burst through the line about 20 metres out, did a smart kick and regather before off-loading to Tuhoro for his second try. The conversion made it 22-26 to Takahiwai and its fans were starting to get excited.
A try just minutes later to Henare saw the Stags pull back to 26-26 and with less than 10 minutes to go it was all on as both sides fought for supremacy and the killer punch.
Hikurangi pulled ahead again on 75 minutes when fullback Jordan Rau scored, but the missed conversion left it 30-26 to Hikurangi and a frantic last few minutes was in store.
A hectic final few minutes saw both sides probing the other's line, but it was again Joe Rau who proved the difference, bursting through several tackles on half way and offloading to Schreurs to score out wide.