RUATORIA - A late drop goal from first five-eighths Victor Taingahue saw East Coast to a thrilling 18-15 win in the thirddivision NPC rugby final over Poverty Bay yesterday.



It was the first NPC title for East Coast, New Zealand's smallest rugby province, who celebrated victory over their nearest neighbours in front of a crowd of about 5000 - more than the population of the town.



The scoreline reversed the result from when the teams met earlier in the season and cemented East Coast's best season. Before this year they had never even reached the semifinals.



Taingahue's late strike stretched his team's lead to 18-8 and an injury-time Poverty Bay converted try was not enough to haul back the deficit.

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Both sides scored two tries in a tense and even game where a strong, chilly second-half wind favoured the home team.



"We just never showed the composure we needed to, despite having dominance up front," said Poverty Bay coach Brett Fell. "We had lots of opportunities that we should have taken, and we should have been patient too."



East Coast coach Joe McClutchie said the toss was vital.



"We called correctly ... and we were expecting it to get windy," he said. "In the end our guys turned around at halftime, looked for more accuracy and we used that wind well."



The teams were locked 3-all at halftime, but East Coast went ahead from a Tyrone Delamere intercept try 10 minutes after the resumption.



A try to Fijian winger Maika Vere took the home side out to 15-3 before Poverty Bay finally started to run the ball to good effect.



Prop Pene Fotuaiki tapped and dived over from a 5m penalty in the 77th minute and Poverty Bay trailed 8-15, before Taingahue kicked his match-winning drop goal from 35m in the 80th minute.



Four minutes into injury time, Taingahue's wild long pass was intercepted for Poverty Bay centre Maurice Kerekere to score, with the conversion bringing the visitors within three points.



However, East Coast hung on gamely to claim victory. - NZPA