Auckland rugby coach Alama Ieremia has paid an emotional tribute to his team and family after his side progressed into the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership final this afternoon.
Victors in 2018, Auckland will return to the Premiership final after a 23-18 win over Waikato, and post-match, Ieremia was overcome with emotion, revealing the struggles he and his team have dealt with this season as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I had a brother that lost his job due to Covid-19; I've got a father who's struggled to stay alive — he's been crook for a long time; he's here in New Zealand, can't get back to Samoa, and he's been here supporting this team right from the start," Ieremia said.
"I'm not the only one — that's only my story. There are families that are obviously going under a lot of financial strain as well. I have staff that are working for free, they can't 100 per cent put bread and butter on the table for their families, and they've committed a lot to this team.
"It puts it in perspective what we do, so I just want to say thanks to everyone and hope the boys do it for them."
Auckland will host the final against defending champions Tasman at Eden Park next weekend, with free entry for fans.
Ieremia explained the union wanted to give back to the community.
"We certainly want to make sure this team gives back," Ieremia said. "I mentioned earlier in the week that the value of this team was really inspiring our community. It will be a very emotional week for a lot of the players because everyone's had a different story around their families, around club rugby, around friends that have been affected by Covid-19.
"We've all got our own stories, so I'd like to think that the team will probably repay a lot of that faith and support to make us do what we do. Hopefully we can say thanks to whoever turns up. For us to be there in the first place, there's probably a little more emotion around it.
"I'm very proud of the team and a lot of people behind the scenes; a lot unseen has gone on to achieve what we've done, and I'd like to think we can finish it on a high."
They will likely need a better performance than they produced against Waikato, who took a 15-11 lead into the sheds at halftime, and were the better side for long stretches of the match.
However, one stretch, just after halftime, saw Auckland hit the front, with second five-eighth Tanielu Tele'a crossing just after the restart, before his midfield partner Tumua Manu followed fewer than 10 minutes later.
Waikato had their chances in the second half and put plenty of pressure on Auckland but were able to add only a solitary penalty.
Auckland's defence held strong and came up with some big, vital turnovers deep in their own territory in the final 15 minutes — none more important than that of Jack Whetton in the 80th minute, which allowed the hosts to kick the ball into touch and close out a nervy win.
Visiting Eden Park for the final will be Tasman, who kept their hopes of back-to-back titles alive with a 19-10 victory over surprise semifinalists Bay of Plenty.
Tries to Quentin MacDonald and Leicester Fainga'anuku gave Tasman a 13-0 lead, but a yellow card to Sione Havili helped Bay of Plenty cross before halftime through Joe Webber to reduce the deficit to 13-7. A Kaleb Trask penalty put the visitors within three points, but Mitch Hunt responded with two penalties of his own, including a pivotal effort from a tough angle with eight minutes remaining, to give Tasman a comfortable buffer to close out victory.
In the Championship, Hawke's Bay have earned the right to host next weekend's promotion final, after obliterating Taranaki 59-23 in Napier.
The sides fought out a close battle in Inglewood a week ago in the final match of the round robin, but Hawke's Bay left nothing to chance in the semifinal, running in eight tries to three. They'll host Northland next weekend, who upset Otago on Friday night.