It has been a hard autumn and early winter for Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri and Black Bull Liquor Pirates, but lifting the Division 2 trophy at Cooks Gardens tomorrow would usher in a hopeful spring.
The inaugural final for the six-team hybrid competition features both of the clubs who were relegated from Tasman Tanning Premier after the first round of games in May, having now outlasted the four squads promoted from Senior.
Having been beaten Premier grand finalists in 2018, Pirates were in a complete rebuilding phase under new coach Danny Tamehana, following the departure of double title-winning coach Phillip Morris, and with him, the access to multiple talented youngsters from the Pacific.
The result was a losing streak of eight straight games – the entire first round of Premier plus the opening match of Division 2 after relegation – which included a heavy 51-22 defeat to Ngamatapouri at the start of the season in the Waitotara Valley.
Ngamatapouri, ultimately going along without a head coach, hoped that April 6 victory was the start of better things, but they too would lose their remaining six Premier matches to join Pirates in relegation.
Having some of the most dangerous Fijian ball-runners in the entire competition, able to lay on repeated tries from deep in their own 22m, the South Taranaki country side has suffered from an uneven allocation of talent – missing vital grinders in the forward pack who can do the unfashionable phase and set piece work.
Still, unlucky to be the other team to drop down after losing their last Premier game to Harvey Round Motors Ratana by a single point in the Pa, Ngamatapouri were expected to clean up Division 2, in much the same undefeated fashion as they won the 2016 Senior title.
That was until June 22 at Spriggens Park, when Pirates finally delivered for their beleaguered supporters on Old Timers day with a 22-19 victory, again trailing Ngamatapouri at halftime, but this time getting up for their first victory of 2019.
The Whanganui club had pooled their resources as their likewise struggling Senior team folded for the year, defaulting all of Division 3, with the most committed players combining as Pirates won four games straight to make the final tomorrow.
Ngamatapouri, meanwhile, were untroubled in their other matchups, including a 36-5 semifinal win in the valley last weekend over Utiku Old Boys, while Pirates got payback on the Bennett's Taihape Senior team with a 31-15 win over at Memorial Park.
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Tamehana agreed that after all the disappointments, to lift some silverware tomorrow afternoon would not only sign off 2019 the right way, but would be a vital shot in the arm for either club to stay motivated for 2020.
"It was pretty good for both teams, to be rebuilding [this season]. It was hard at the start.
"[June 22] was a bit of a kick start from that point onwards."
Pirates still has wirily veterans who remember the glory days, such as stalwart Lasa Ulukuta, prop Brett Turner, goal-kicking forward Manulua Lafi, and a former Ngamatapouri lock in Francis Vakadravu.
The team will miss injured playmaker Ricky Boniface this afternoon.
"There's a hardcore group of 6-7 players that stuck with it and kept it all together. [So] it wasn't all bad," said Tamehana.
"Two totally different teams, two different game plans.
"It's trying to cancel those factors out, at the end of the day."
Meanwhile, Ngamatapouri have four current Steelform Wanganui training squad members in Bryn Hudson, Samu Kubunavanua, Michael Nabuliwaqa and Sheldon Pakinga-Manhire.
"We shouldn't have lost to them last time, but we've gone a lot better since," said team manager Gerald Pearce.
He agreed it would be an opposites attack kind of match – Pirates backing their scrum and phase work, while Ngamatapouri look to free the ball out wide.
"Our backline, you won't get a better one in the union, I think.
"They want to have some fun too."
Playing either in the loose forwards or backline, Kubunavanua still finished fourth overall in the Grand Hotel MVP season points standings, despite only seven matches counting towards his tally before his team was relegated from Premier.
Timoci Seruwalu will play his last local match before rejoining Horowhenua-Kapiti as a loan player for their preseason, after he was an important part of their 2018 Lochore Cup victory.
Kickoff for the Division 2 final is 12.45pm, followed by the Division 1 final of Waverley Harvesting Border vs Byford's Readimix Taihape at 2.30pm.