The Horahora under-18s endured a two-hour drive from Whangārei, going the long way around the east coast with the Mangamuka Gorge still closed, before they took the field against their Kaitaia counterparts at Arnold Rae Park on Saturday, and that might have played a part in the visitors' slow start.
They soon woke up, however, and clawed their way back into the game.
The match started in great conditions, Kaitaia team fielding a noticeably smaller pack and inside backs, but they were soon applying pressure to Horahora, with two tries to a young tyro from Eastern, Jedidiah Hita, the first coming from a barnstorming run from outside the 22 after a break from the ruck, the second from relatively close in after a series of penalties.
Horahora gradually lifted their game however, and Karlo Torres was driven over the tryline in the corner during a period of play that had them marching down the field.
The Kaitaia props had the better of a tight first 30 minutes, but Horahora finished the half stronger, pressing hard at the Kaitaia line, the hosts giving away penalties in their determination to keep the visitors out, but it was in vain, Dakota Arani-Leaborne crashing through for a converted try. Half-time 14-12 to Kaitaia.
Horahora started the second half where they left off the first, Jayden Toeke selling a dummy 22 metres out and going in under the posts untouched. The southerners had been exerting a lot of pressure for a sustained period of time, but Kaitaia came back at them from the kick-off, retaining the ball well, and after some great passing interplay No 8 Shannon Pomare scored a well finished off try that started 35 metres out.
Horahora went straight back on to attack, and only an intercept from Kaitaia wing Lani Clark, who was bundled into touch, stopped a sure try. Horahora tried a quick throw-in but unfortunately their receiver was not ready for it; Pomare was, collecting the ball sprinting 70 metres for an unlikely try. The Horahora players had all stopped, and after impressive young referee Harry Wharerau told them to play on only a few forlorn chasers followed Pomare downfield.
(Northland referees must be congratulated for assigning two senior assistant referees, Gary Steed and Darren Shanks, as well as having them mic'd up, allowing the officials to make the correct call. There were a few dissenters, who made their feelings known to the referee, forcing Harry into restarting play after the conversion with a Kaitaia penalty).
Meanwhile Horahora regrouped around their impressive captain, No 8 Kobe Walters, who, with a slick inpass, sent his fullback Daniel Jansen over for a try. Horahora now 7 points behind. More sustained pressure saw Horahora back into Kaitaia's 22, and after a penalty some quick passing saw lock Max Woodhouse score.
Walters landed an amazing conversion from the sideline for an incredible draw, 29-all.
Horahora were definitely the better team, but as coach Carl Mehana noted, his side, scratched together team after a lot of injuries, made up for a lack of structure with plenty of passion.