North Harbour premier club rugby final: Takapuna v Massey
ASB Cup, QBE Stadium, Albany, 3pm
The North Harbour premier club final pits the free-wheeling brilliance of a close to full strength Massey side against one of the great clubs of the union, Takapuna.
Massey coach Jarrod Framhein, whose side is gunning for a third title in four years, faces the top qualifier Takapuna, who are contesting their first final since 2009, the last of a four-year title streak.
The west Aucklanders are the defending champs, but that is not how Framhein and his team have approached the 2016 season.
Framhein would like to think that Takapuna are favourites, and in some senses he is right, given they have dropped just one game all season and are playing accurate, effective football. But then you have to consider that Massey are fielding close to a full strength side, with a stack of rep and club finals experience, and so Framhein might be pushing it with that view.
"They'll come out all guns blazing. We've got to come out and match that urgency, but we've got a lot to play for. This is our fourth grand final in a row and to win three championships in four years would be great," says Framhein.
Most of his big guns are back, other than loose forward Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a, still nursing a shoulder injury from the New Zealand Under 20s' campaign, prop Salesi Ma'afu and injured sevens rep and Hurricanes midfielder Pita Ahki.
Blues wing Tevita Li will start, while the backline boasts a midfield of Niko Ratumaitavuki and Rhema Sagote. Such is the logjam that Blues squad member Matt Vaega can only make the bench, where he will be joined by veteran halfback Chris Smylie, newly returned to the North Harbour squad.
On the wing is Mark Telea, whose 12th try of the season, in last week's tight 13-9 semifinal victory over North Shore, was his most important of 2016.
"Mark Telea has had a breakthrough year, the young fella," says Framhein.
Ben Svenson leads the team from lock, where he will be joined by another Blues squad member in Gerard Tuioti-Mariner. No 8 Dylan Lam is another who has had a breakthrough year and he must be unlucky to miss the North Harbour squad. Openside Connor Collett, who hails from England, has developed his allround No 7 game nicely in his second season at the club. Veterans Adrian Smith and Ray Niuia will anchor the front-row.
"We are pretty healthy. We were struggling 5-6 weeks ago, but they've all come through," says Framhein of his squad situation. That win over North Shore, Massey's opponents in the last three finals, showed that Massey can win an arm-wrestle if need be and contrasts with their 55-10 crushing of Glenfield, their best display of 2016, in the playoffs two weeks ago.
"The boys showed they could grind it out because we've been struggling to grind it out this year," says Framhein.
He knows his side have not been as consistent as they would have liked, but they took some good lessons out of the July 3 27-19 defeat to Takapuna.
"They were a completely different side to the one we came across in the first round. We beat them 43-10. They've brought in a whole lot of new personnel and they took us by surprise," says Framhein.
There will be no element of surprise tomorrow afternoon, where Massey know if they infringe in their own half, Jon Elrick will make them pay with his metronomic boot.
Takapuna, for their part, have played consistently good rugby in 2016, dropping just that one game to Massey, operating off a sound set-piece, and yet with the ability to strike out wide. Centre Nathan Cargo has eight tries to his name, while wings Junior Tofa-Va'a and Jamie Williamson are also more than capable, the latter scoring a 50m solo try against Massey in their last clash.
Takapuna have locked away the Les Pearce Memorial Shield for the summer, but there is bigger silverware they would love to get their hands on.
Second year coach, former North Harbour loose forward Blair Urlich, has seen Takapuna build nicely with a young group since missing the semifinals in 2015.
"The depth gained has given the guys confidence that if they have to bring someone in, it all runs smoothly."
It helps when you have a sharpshooter like Jon Elrick, who has plays at second five, slotting goals from everywhere. He has 173 points to his credit, and they have a fine second option in No 10 Bryn Gatland, who has made the Harbour squad. Nick Elrick chimes in from fullback with his experience and nous. The Elricks are the sole survivors from Takapuna's 2009 championship final victory.
The pack has lost prop and skipper Boyd Wiggins, who is unwell, so hooker Byron Smith assumes the captaincy armband, and Urlich says his lineout throwing and hard work around the park epitomises the approach of his pack. Flanker Kane Jacobson, another new Harbour squad member, will be prominent at the breakdown.
"Everyone wants to play for each other and that's really helped," says Urlich. "We've had a good enough crew to get us to the finals and now that we are there anything can happen."
They almost didn't make it, though, squeaking home 41-39 over Northcote in the semifinal.
"Last week none of the guys were happy with how we played. We gave away three intercept tries, which kept them in it. We were poor with a few other things. Composure is the key. The older heads, when things get a bit rough, they suck it up and don't panic. They know they'll be fully up against it against a Massey side that can do the damage. They knocked over a really good Shore team," says Urlich.
Takapuna will need to be sure on the tackle, as does any side up against Massey.
"From 1-15 they can all attack the line and offload. If you are not on your game, they will make you pay. We can score points well enough. Any kick within J El's radar, he will normally get, but you can't always rely on that."
Blues players Matt Duffie and James Parsons will be involved, with Duffie off the pine and Parsons dispensing water and advice.
"I'm nervous as. Anything can happen in finals," adds Urlich.