North Harbour's surge into tomorrow night's Mitre 10 Cup Championship decider has warmed the cockles of the heart of the union's most capped player.

Former All Blacks prop Ron Williams played the last of his 145 games for North Harbour in the infamous 1994 NPC final at Onewa Domain, in which Auckland edged Brad Meurant's side 22-16 in a spiteful clash. That was the last time North Harbour have featured in any provincial final, though they did win the NPC third division in 1985, the union's first season, and the second division in 1987, before the playoffs format was inaugurated.

Williams is the President of the New Zealand Barbarians club, but his Harbour connection, these days, is as an interested spectator.

"I just think they've been a lot more consistent. Their defence is a lot better. I think (coach) Steve Jackson has been the difference. He's got the forwards and tight five performing a whole lot better than in the past, which has allowed those backs to dance around," says Williams.


He has taken special delight in seeking Nic Mayhew's development as a quality scrummager and allround player in recent seasons, especially as Mayhew too, like Williams from 1985-94, is a loosehead prop out of the Northcote club.

"He's made a big impression. He scrummages well and gets around the field, and has the odd run with the ball."

Williams works with Graham Dowd, who was in that 1994 final front-row, along with Slade McFarland, who was still playing premier club rugby in 2016.

"It's been a long time between drinks. In previous years, we've lost the close games, but this year we've won them," Williams says. In fact, Harbour have won more six games in all this season. They won just 10 from 2011-15 as the union endured a fallow period, though Jackson twice took them to the cusp of the Championship semifinals in 2014-15.

"The pack is probably similar to Tasman. They are all hard workers. They had early injuries, but most are back into it and playing well."

The memory of that 1994 final is still vivid for Williams, though he has never brought himself to watch a replay. Harbour had good cause to call themselves the finest team in the land, going 15-4, beating France, lowering Auckland on Eden Park for the first time, finishing the best of the New Zealand teams in the Super 10, and giving Canterbury a semifinal shellacking in which first five Warren Burton totally outplayed Andrew Mehrtens.

Burton, however, the union's all-time leading scorer and who still holds a clutch of records made a costly second half error in the final which gifted Sean Fitzpatrick a try.
Eric Rush and Robin Brooke were both sent off by referee Colin Hawke, attesting to a torrid affair.

"It was pretty physical. We probably got a bit carried away with the occasion rather than doing the things you might normally do. Hopefully Harbour don't do that against Otago! There was a lot of emotion in it. Playing against Auckland was like playing your family or cousin. That affected us and we should have been a bit calmer," recalls Williams, who won North Harbour's player of the day. Not that it would have been any consolation. He held his own in the scrums against the formidable Olo Brown, but had his hands full in the lineout with Kevin Nepia, who was a fine jumper.


"I restricted Nepia to five two-handed takes at the front of the lineout!" he quips.

*NB. Williams' old Harbour teammate Walter Little, whose son Michael will line up in the No 12 jersey tomorrow night, did eventually equal Williams' appearance record in 2000. That mark of 145 will surely stand for all time, unless someone is prepared to play 13-14 seasons for the province.

Live commentary of the Otago-Harbour match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 7.35pm on Friday.