Keas Coach Finds Silver Lining In Canterbury’s Big Wet
Last week’s major weather event caused havoc with Canterbury Rugby League’s finals, but if anyone could look on the bright side of the region’s big wet, it was Linwood Keas coach Andrew Auimatagi.
Auimatagi was set to miss the Keas’ showdown with Hornby Panthers last Saturday, away in Rotorua in charge of the New Zealand Residents 16s side.
The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls mentor emphasised he left his club side in capable hands – but admitted he is relishing the chance to be there for the rescheduled clash at Murphy Park this weekend.
“I’ve got full faith and confidence in the team to get the job done if I’m not there, and there’s some great staff and impressive leaders in our playing group,” Auimatagi said.
“I was gutted to possibly miss that game, but I’ve also got full faith in those guys to deliver their best performance without me there.
“The boys were looking forward to playing last weekend. Even though the weather was crap, they wanted to get a hit-out.
“But it’s also allowed for a few guys to make sure they’re a hundred percent going into it this weekend, so there’s some positives to be taken out of it as well.”
Auimatagi returned from Rotorua with a spring in his step after guiding some of the country’s best young talent to a 32-28 win over New Zealand Maori 17s at Puketawhero Park.
“It was an awesome experience. We’d been prepping for that game for a few months, and they’re just a great group of players and staff to work with,” he said.
“To get the result was a bonus, but I really enjoyed the time away.
“It’s pretty refreshing working in that national rep program. They’ve got future superstars in the waiting, and the character of the young men was really impressive. You can see why they’ve been targeted by NRL clubs, and they were soaking everything up.
“It was awesome to be around and I’m predicting there’s some exciting things ahead for a few of them.”
Back in CRL clubland, Auimatagi said this weekend’s grand final qualifier would be business as usual for the defending champion Keas.
“For us, it’s always been about our performance. No matter who we’re going up against, we’re always trying to better our own team performance and that won’t change for the finals.
“Doing the basics to the best of our ability and controlling the things we can control – that’s been the focus for us all year and it doesn’t change this weekend.
“We know Hornby are going into this game wanting to win just as much as us, so it’s just about us doing all those little things really well and playing with a bit more intensity and desire.”
Auimatagi is under no illusions about the dangers the Panthers present, particularly with the ball in hand. The Panthers scored 482 points – 87 points more than the Keas – at a whopping 34 per game during the regular season and racked up 44 or more on five occasions.
But Linwood is the competition’s defensive benchmark, conceding less than 13 points a game, keeping three clean sheets and restricting its opponents to eight points or less in six of their 14 Massetti Cup outings.
Of course, the Keas are no slouches on attack – they’ve also recorded seven wins by 20-plus margins in building a stunning 13-game winning streak, including their last three games heading into the finals.
“It’s a really good match-up. We know what the Panthers bring to the table,” Auimatagi says.
“They’re really dangerous team with the ball and there’s some experienced players there, but we pride ourselves on our defence and working well as a unit.
“If we can control the ball as best we can, I’m sure we’re going to have a few opportunities to show what we can do in attack as well.”
Since they were touched up 38-12 by the Panthers in the opening week of the season at Branston Park – their only loss of 2017 – the Keas have conceded a miserly 11 points a game.
Auimatagi says they’ll be looking to draw inspiration their grinding 14-8 victory in the return clash at Linwood Park in Round 8, particularly with conditions on Saturday unlikely to favour open play.
“That first game against the Panthers was probably one of the worst preparations for a game that I’ve been involved with. We had a few guys that had to be withdrawn at late notice.
“We did take a lot away from that in terms of where we need to be, and the second game, it was really tough and gritty performance (from us) in some trying conditions, not too dissimilar to what I’m expecting this weekend.
“(If we put) in an 80-minute performance I’m sure we’ll put ourselves in good stead to get a result.”
The semi-final blockbuster’s delay also allows Auimatagi to go up against his Rockcote Canterbury Bulls assistant, Hornby coach Jed Lawrie – confirming there will be a bit of banter before and after the high-powered encounter.
“It’s always good value, I’ve got a good relationship with Jed, and Corey (Lawrie) and few of the other (Panthers) boys.
“We love to have a bit of a joke around, but we love the game and when we match up against each other it’s all guns blazing.
“We’ve still got the relationship to enjoy each other’s company off the field as well so it’s pretty cool.”
Linwood and Hornby have faced off in four of the previous 12 CRL grand finals. Auimatagi missed the Keas’ record-shattering 66-10 rout of the Panthers in the 2005 decider, while he was on the losing side as the Panthers saluted on grand final day in 2006 and ’09.
He was at the helm as the Keas subdued the Panthers in last year’s grand final, however, and is looking forward to the next instalment of one of Canterbury sport’s great local rivalries – which could include another winner-takes-all meeting on August 13.
“Hornby definitely bring the best out of us and they do love testing themselves against us,” Auimatagi says.
“Off the field there’s some good relationships but it’s a strong rivalry we have in terms of footy, and I think that’s healthy for the competition that we’ve got two crosstown rivals going at it quite consistently.
“I’m expecting a pretty tough game this weekend and I’m sure whoever comes out on top will thoroughly deserve the win.”
CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE PREMIERS – FINALS WEEK 1
Murphy Park Double-header – Saturday, July 29
Papanui Tigers v Celebration Lions – 1pm
Linwood Keas v Papanui Tigers – 2.45pm