Herald rugby writer Campbell Burnes previews the Counties Manukau, North Harbour and Auckland premier club rugby finals.
Counties Manukau premier club final: Bombay v Karaka
ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe, 2.45pm
Will it be Bombay skipper Ben Masoe lifting the McNamara Cup tomorrow afternoon, or will his Karaka counterpart Jamie Gilbert-Clark bring home the coveted silverware for the first time in his club's 80-year history?
That is the scenario facing the same two protagonists we saw in the 2014 decider.
Karaka will enter as favourites, despite their epic championship drought. They have racked up a 17-2 record this season, with well over 700 points. They won the first round Challenge Cup and in wing Tavite Gadeisuva, they have the competition's leading tryscorer, a player Bombay will need to subdue.
Karaka have been runners-up in 2007, 2012 and '14.
"We haven't really spoken about (the drought), but it's there," said Karaka coach Craig Hill. "A number of guys have played in two finals and don't want to make it a third time unlucky."
Today is a massive day for the club, with three sides in finals, and constant buses shuttling between Karaka and Pukekohe.
Steelers hooker Sione Anga'aelangi had to pass a Thursday night fitness test to take his place in the Karaka starting XV. The cutting edge may come in the midfield, where Rey Lee-Lo plays his last game in New Zealand before Manu Samoa's RWC campaign and an overseas contract.
The two sides have met twice in 2015, the ledger even at 1-1. Bombay won 19-18 on opening weekend on March 14, but Karaka turned the tables 21-15 just three weeks ago, though Bombay were missing some key players. Karaka had to work overtime to repel Pukekohe 17-14 in their semifinal last weekend.
Bombay will look to the likes of Steelers prop Sam Aiono, first five Piers Francis, centre Sam Vaka and wing Toni Pulu for direction, along with former Auckland No 8 Masoe and lock Matiaha Martin, one of several who have raised 50 games this season.
"We've been a lot more consistent this season," said Bombay coach Jeff Marr. "But Karaka have been there or thereabouts. They are the pacesetters."
Marr is happy to take the underdog status, as Bombay qualified third and have a 15-4 record, but they are the defending champs, having ended a 25-year drought in 2014. Prior to that victory, they had three championships in the 1980s to savour.
Buoyed by their 18-3 semifinal win at Ardmore-Marist, Bombay feel the pressure is on Karaka, but they are also aware that no side has won back to back McNamara Cups since Pukekohe in 2004-05.
North Harbour premier club rugby final: North Shore v Massey
QBE Stadium, Albany, 3pm
On 2015 form, Massey should enter this decider as favourites, having been front-runners for most of the season and first round winners.
But games between the west Aucklanders and North Shore over the last few years have generally been tight, spawning a close rivalry to match that of East Coast Bays and Takapuna in the early days of the union. North Shore are, though, the defending champions, having comprehensively beaten Massey 50-18 in the 2014 final. The best two club sides in the union will meet again.
"There's no favourites when it comes to Massey and Shore. The team that executes to the best of their ability will win it," said Massey coach Jarrod Framhein.
Massey defeated Western Pioneers 24-8 in last weekend's semifinal, and edged shore 28-22 at Vauxhall Road just a fortnight ago, reversing the result at Moire Park in the first round.
Shore was inconsistent in the first round, losing and then regaining the Les Pearce Memorial Shield from Glenfield and winning 32-15 over Walter Little's lads in the semifinal.
"It's going to be tough. It's always been to and fro between us in the last few years. They may have a slight advantage in the backs, while it's us in the forwards," said Shore coach Frano Botica. He won two championships as a Shore player in 1987-88 and as coach in 2014. Shore will seek to control the match through its vaunted pack, starting with a rep front row of Alex Woonton, James Hinchco and Sione Mafileo, with captain Josh Blucher and Leigh Thompson providing support in the loose. A seasoned halves combination of Luke Hamilton and Willie Walker, playing his final match before taking up the whistle, will look to pilot the side around the track. Botica believes several of his side were unlucky to miss Harbour selection, among them wing Whiria Meltzer, who will have the unenviable task of shutting down Tevita Li.
"They've got some quality backs, but we've done our homework. We're not afraid of them and they aren't afraid of us," said Botica.
So strong is the depth in the Massey backline that Crusader Nafi Tuitavake cannot even make the 22! The midfield will be Niko Ratumaitavuki and Pita Ahki, while Matt Vaega comes off the bench, as does Rhema Sagote. Framhein feels his pack is often underrated, though it counts five Harbour reps. Young No 8 Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a is one to watch. Nuggety halfback Nalu Tuigamala will want to prove the rep selectors wrong.
Massey were the 2013 champions and have won four premier club titles.
Auckland premier club final: University v Grammar TEC
Eden Park, Auckland, 2.45pm
Auckland's Gallaher Shield final pits favourites Grammar TEC, who seek their first title as a new entity, against defending champions University, desperate for a 19th championship.
Grammar TEC won the Alan McEvoy Memorial Shield and have flexed their muscle in recent weeks, dispatching the likes of Ponsonby and Pakuranga with ease and beating Waitemata 27-3 in the semifinal. They have a powerful backline and a strong pack, led by lock Scott Scrafton.
Prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi returns from Barbarians duty, though George Moala is not involved. Other than Otulea Katoa joining Tonga's RWC campaign, Grammar TEC have a full complement. The Hickey brothers are in the halves, while centre Dave Thomas will look to feed Ben Lam and Bryce Heem on the wings. The front-row depth is impressive, with New Zealand Under 20 hooker Liam Polwart sharing the No 2 duties with Andrew Makalio. Loosehead prop Tom McHugh, who was a thorn in the side of the Varsity scrum in the 21-18 win on June 13, will anchor that set-piece.
Grammar TEC assistant coach Sam Ward said the 2014 result was spoken about briefly at the start of 2015.
"Since then it's just been about doing our jobs," said Ward. "I think the boys are confident and comfortable that over the last month we've come close to our best starting XV. But Varsity are very fit and they will fight to the very end."
Varsity dropped two home games this season, but have on occasion playing some very good rugby, notably to down Pakuranga 18-12 in the semifinal last weekend. They are boosted by the return of tighthead prop Marcel Renata from Maori All Blacks duty and No 7 Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray from injury. Locks Henry Wheadon and Tim Cleaver have picked up the slack left by last month's injury to the promising Tom Robinson. Skipper Kurt Eklund will lead from the front, as always.
"We're comfortable with where we fit. The Highlanders-Hurricanes scenario has been bandied around. The coaching staff have been waiting for something special to happen with this team. There is pressure on Grammar TEC to perform," said Varsity coach Dean Bickerton.
Both teams are anxious to only look forward, but if they can replicate anything like the extra time grand final thriller that enthralled the Eden Park faithful last season, then spectators will be in for a treat.
"There's been some focus taken away from club rugby and onto First XV, but the commitment these guys put in is huge, holding down jobs, training with us and rep squads, plus their families," said Bickerton.
The curtainraiser, for the Under 21s Arthur Bayliss Cup, sees University take on Pakuranga.