Keas Stand On The Cusp Of History
Defending premiers Linwood stand of the cusp of history in Sunday’s CRL premiers grand final at Linfield Park, aiming to become the first Keas side ever to win back-to-back grand finals.
Despite appearing in six straight deciders from 2004-09, and now lining up for their third in a row, the men in green and black have never saluted on grand final day in consecutive years.
Keas coach Andrew Auimatagi confirmed an indelible place in the club’s folklore would provide part of his side’s motivation ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Hornby Panthers.
“We haven’t really talked about (going back-to-back) until now, but now we’re 80 minutes away from the end of the season we have to throw everything into to delivering our best and hopefully getting the result,” Auimatagi said.
“It would mean a lot, we’ve touched on the history within our club and becoming the first (Linwood) team to go back-to-back would be a massive achievement for our guys and a challenge they’re really excited about.”
Unlike last year, however, when the Keas won straight through to the grand final courtesy of a hard-fought major semi win over the Panthers, the minor premiers have had to qualify for the 2017 decider the hard way.
Linwood secured the Massetti Cup on the back of 13 straight wins, before being outplayed 22-14 by Hornby in the major semi. The Keas then held their nerve to clinch a 30-24 victory over the underdog Papanui Tigers in a preliminary final thriller – but the grind of an extended finals campaign is taking its toll.
“It was a tough, physical game (against the Tigers) so recovery has been a big focus for us,” Auimatagi admitted.
“(At training on Tuesday) the intensity was a bit lower than it would be during the season, just to give them a bit of rest time.”
But the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls mentor is confident his side will heed the lessons from their semi-final loss and produce a vastly improved performance in the grand final.
“It was good to look at some footage from that game, it was fairly clear where we went wrong. Without giving too much away, we’ve just got to be better with and without the ball.
“Hornby are a good attacking side, so we have to limit their opportunities and make sure we’re connected in defence, that’s been the big focus for us.”
The Keas have been without halfback and linchpin Daniel Hartley since the penultimate round of the regular season, succumbing to an ACL rupture. A miraculous finals return was briefly mooted ahead of last week’s assignment but was eventually abandoned.
Versatile veteran Paul Sauni has stepped into the No.7 breach admirably, however, scoring a second-half hat-trick in the preliminary final.
“Up until his injury Daniel was a big part of our season and was playing some outstanding footy, so it’s unfortunate for him because he was probably in line for representative honours as well,” Auimatagi lamented.
“But I’m really pleased with how ‘Paulie’ (Sauni) has stepped into the role. Our game doesn’t change too much – he’s a direct runner, but he’s also got great ball skills and he’s played really well in that position.”
Meanwhile, wily five-eighth Toi Sepuloni has taken over the chief playmaking responsibilities with little disruption to the Keas’ make-up, earning praise from the coach.
“Toi had a really strong game on the weekend, he delivered pretty much everything that we asked of him.
“He’s someone that does thrive in the big games, so we’re really looking for his best again and for him to continue to be a leader for our guys.”
Linwood’s achievement in having teams in all four grand final showdowns at Linfield Park on Sunday – the 16s, Canterbury Cup, women’s premiership and men’s premiership – has set the stage for a memorable week for the club.
“It’s going to be an awesome day, and it’s been a great week so far. (On Tuesday) we managed to mingle in with our 16s, have a bit of a game with them and have some pizzas,” Auimatagi revealed.
“It’s just an exciting buzz across the club with the women’s (team) featuring and also our ‘Bs’ (Canterbury Cup) having a second consecutive final, so it’s really cool for our community and we’re hoping to get some big support at Linfield Park on Sunday.”
The Keas finished top of the Massetti Cup table at the end of the regular season with a 13-1 record, going unbeaten after their Round 1 loss to the Panthers. They crafted the best defensive record in the competition, conceding 178 points at less than 13 per game.
LINWOOD KEAS’ ROAD TO THE 2017 GRAND FINAL
Round 1: Hornby – Lost 38-12
Round 3: Papanui – Won 13-0
Round 4: Riccarton – Won 26-6
Round 5: Halswell – Won 28-26
Round 6: Aranui – Won 40-20
Round 7: Northern – Won 32-16
Round 8: Hornby – Won 14-8
Round 2 (postponed): Celebration – Won 48-6
Round 9: Celebration – Won 32-16
Round 10: Papanui – Won 26-0
Round 11: Riccarton – Won 24-16
Round 12: Halswell – Won 42-16
Round 13: Aranui – Won 28-0
Round 14: Northern – Won 30-10
Major semi-final: Hornby – Lost 22-14
Preliminary final: Papanui – Won 30-24