Te Rarawa tasted sweet revenge at Ahipara on Saturday, defeating last year's champions Kaikohe to claiming Northland's women's club rugby crown.
Playing in front of more than 200 people, last year's runners-up proved their worth with desperate, last-ditch defence in the face of an extraordinary second-half comeback by the visitors to win 22-19.
Both teams were stacked with talent, Black Ferns Sevens veterans Portia Woodman and Tyla Nathan-Wong featuring alongside current and former Black Ferns Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Aroha Savage, Kamila Wihongi, Rawinia Everitt and Cheryl Smith.
After charging through a guard of honour from their club's men's team, 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 as captain Krystal Murray scored her team's second try after 10 minutes. And when they went up 17-0 after 23 minutes, through another try from Ngata-Aerengamate, Kaikohe were staring down the barrel of an embarrassing defeat. Despite their best efforts, they 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 Ferns player and coach Rawinia Everitt on Kaikohe wing Manaia Webb keeping 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 their effort. The frustration was clearly true for Woodman who, at centre, made three huge tackles on defence that made onlookers wince.
Te Rarawa began the second half 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.
At that point 50-year-old Smith brought herself on at flanker as a last-ditch attempt to motivate her team, and 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; minutes later the centre worked a silky backline move that saw her tear down the touchline, beating multiple defenders to make the score 22-12 with 20 minutes to go.
She was also involved in her team's third try, as they attempted a monumental comeback. Breaking the line, Woodman offloaded and Webb dived over, 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 was in Te Rarawa's 22, 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, but, 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 title.
"I feel tired but I feel great," Murray said after the final whistle, congratulating 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," she added.
Ngata-Aerengamate, a 30-cap Black Fern, said the game was the hardest she'd played in a long time, a good sign ahead of Northland's second Farah Palmer Cup campaign, which will begin in Kaikohe this month against Taranaki.
"It's definitely a level up from last year, and now that a few of the girls from our team and Kaikohe have had a taste of it, they know what the level is for when we do go into the FPC," she said.
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 more than 20 games for the Black Ferns, was emotional after the final whistle. It was her last game, she said, and she was all but speechless when trying 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 the club's centenary year, Everitt saying 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," she said.
Had the Covid-19 pandemic not occurred, Nathan-Wong would likely have been playing for Olympic Games sevens gold in Tokyo on the same day, but the Ngāpuhi halfback said the club final 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," she said.