HISTORY-CHASING KEAS MAINTAIN THE HUNGER
It could be argued Hornby Panthers have more to play for in Sunday’s CRL men’s premiership grand final after back-to-back losses to Linwood Keas in the 2016-17 deciders.
But the Keas, who head into their fourth straight grand final, are adamant they have maintained the requisite hunger to carve out an even more indelible piece of Canterbury Rugby League history on the weekend.
Linwood can become the first club since Eastern Suburbs in 1979-81 to win three straight titles. Papanui (1971-74 and 1976-78) is the only other club to win three grand finals in succession.
There’s also the motivation of not letting an undefeated season go to waste. The Keas went 14-0 during the regular season before swamping Northern 48-10 in the major semi.
Going through an entire year without a loss would be yet another glittering achievement for a side that has set incredibly high standards over the past four campaigns under Andrew Auimatagi.
But the coach contends that records and accomplishments are for future reflection – his team can’t afford to look beyond the opening whistle at Rugby League Park.
“Both teams have worked hard to get there and you don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Auimatagi said.
“I’m sure (the Panthers will) throw everything into it. History’s history, but we’ve got to focus on that 80 minutes on Sunday and both teams will prepare as best they can for that.
“(The records are) something to be proud of that you’re contesting for something like that. But it doesn’t change anything, it just comes down to our preparation and performance, so we’re just putting everything into that to hopefully get the result that we’re after.”
Despite their flawless 2018 record – including a pair of hard-fought wins over Hornby – the Keas have been confronted with an unusual obstacle leading into the grand final.
Due to the Tigers forfeiting their final-round match against Linwood, followed by the bye week ahead of the finals series and the week off they earned by being the first side through to the grand final, the Keas have played just one game in past five weeks.
“It wasn’t ideal – you can’t beat playing footy,” Auimatagi admitted.
“But we’ve managed to plan out our trainings really well and simulate the intensity as best we can. We had a good run against our reserves, too, which helped.”
Linwood captain Paul Sauni confirmed there is no hint of complacency in the camp – his players are as determined as ever to keep the Pat Smith Trophy in their cabinet.
“We’ve been here before but it still feels like a grand final, the hype is still there and the boys are hungry,” Sauni said.
“Especially the young kids coming through, they’re really keen on playing in a grand final.
“I think it’s more of a bonus being undefeated, but the drive behind it is the team coming together and the hard work they’re putting in, that’s more what has pushed the season forward and why we’ve had the results we’ve had.”
Retiring Linwood stalwart Aga Fiso’s unforgettable ankle-tap on a runaway Charlie Charlie was viewed as the turning point of the 2017 grand final at Linfield Park as the Keas came from behind to beat the Panthers 34-20.
Sauni said the Keas players are fizzing to step up when the chips are down if required on Sunday.
“The buzz of the team at trainings in the last couple of weeks, it just seems like (the big play) could come from anyone,” the skipper enthused.
The inspirational Fiso hanging up the boots notwithstanding, the Keas have managed to retain the bulk of the squad that powered to grand final success in the past two seasons.
Auimatagi is confident his line-up still possesses the experience to match a Hornby outfit brimming with players who have been starring in CRL grand finals for more than a decade.
“We’ve got the core group of guys that have been there for a while and know what it’s about and have played in those games. And there’s some of those emerging leaders coming through, which is what you want to see.
“Everyone’s accountable for their actions and stepping up when needed.”
But it’s clear there is a healthy admiration between the archrivals after so many memorable battles.
“For a while now it’s been us two teams butting heads, but there’s a lot of respect off the field as well,” Auimatagi said.
“I really respect the way the Panhters play the game and there’s some great leaders right across the park, some great knowledge there and some skilful players.
“I think it’ll come down to some key moments and whoever controls the ball best and fires the shots. We’re hoping to be that team.”
Meanwhile, Auimatagi and the Keas will relish a unique opportunity to farewell Rugby League Park ahead of CRL’s move to its permanent new home at Nga Puna Wai next year.
“It’ll be sad to see the end of rugby league here,” the coach said.
“There’s some great memories – some really tough ones as well, tough losses – but it’s cool to see two games here and I’m sure the boys will cherish the experience.”