By CHRIS RATTUE
Hawkes Bay 30 East Coast 27
Ngati Porou East Coast won just about everything except on that vital area, the scoreboard, at McLean Park in Napier yesterday.
Hawkes Bay were crowned second division champions on an exhilarating afternoon, their triumph setting up a promotion-relegation clash with Bay of Plenty.
Until the final seven minutes, they might have claimed it as a convincing performance. At that point they led 30-10 and East Coast, with their steamroller forwards apparently having called it a day, were struggling to do justice to their magical season.
We should have known better. With the army of Ngati Porou supporters urging them on, they scored three tries in those final minutes, the last coming to their outstanding Fijian lock Kele Leawere after a rolling maul of 45 - yes, 45 - metres.
East Coast won the battle of the supporters, they'd already won the hearts of New Zealand's sporting public, and they had outscored the home side and first division aspirants by five tries to two.
The scoreboard was another story, and the difference was another province. Hawkes Bay wing Tim Manawatu missed just once as he landed five penalties, a conversion and drop goal - the latter after referee Steve Walsh missed a blatant forward pass from Hawkes Bay captain Stu Forster.
Manawatu goaled only one out of six in the semifinal win over his namesake province but yesterday his boot gave Mark Shaw's side a first division chance, although the evidence says they will struggle against Bay of Plenty.
In contrast, East Coast first five-eighth Mano Flutey landed one of his four conversion attempts, and replacement Victor Taingahue missed his shot when the game was lost.
"We did it the hard way. They beat us in the set phases, which was disappointing," said coach Shaw.
"Everyone claims the East Coast don't play for 80 minutes but they proved otherwise.
"If we get the upper hand against Bay of Plenty, we'll have to put the foot on the throat."
How true. And the Hawkes Bay forwards will need some of the hard-nosed attitude their coach was famed for in his playing days.
You could probably write the East Coast game plan on the back of a beer coaster, then use the thing to cover most of their players on the field.
To suggest the Coasters like the rolling maul and bring the ball back to their forwards is like saying Michael Schumacher is a bit nippy behind the wheel.
The East Coast crashed over for two tries near halftime using the above method, so turned with the wind trailing only 16-10.
But Hawkes Bay asserted themselves after halftime, with the athleticism of loose forwards Reece Robinson, South African Erik van der Merwe and Mutu Ngarimu a telling factor.
The East Coast's fringe defence was shaky when van der Merwe twisted over in the 58th minute for the 30-10 advantage.
East Coast had been struggling with frivolous stuff on the flanks but ploughed up the middle again to engineer the late comeback.
"Hawkes Bay said they'd run around the outside of us, but did they?" said Coast flanker Horace Lewis. "They just haven't got the forward power - they won't match it with Bay of Plenty.
"There were one or two crucial decisions against us ... but this team will only get better. We've showed we're competitive."