KNIGHTS REFLECTING ON PROGRESS DESPITE LOST CHANCE
Riccarton Knights are still stinging after an opportunity to play in the Massetti Cup finals slipped through their fingers.
Putting themselves back in contention for the top four with a late-season rally, the Knights were confident heading into their final-round clash with Eastern Eagles – a virtual fourth-place playoff. But the Eagles were too strong at Wainoni Park, powering to a 31-16 win after getting off to a first-half flyer.
The upshot is the Eagles will line up in a sudden-death semi this Saturday, while the Knights will vie for the Gore Cup over the next three weekends.
“It’s definitely a lost opportunity. It was our goal from the beginning of the season to make the top four,” Riccarton coach Jamie Lester laments.
“I feel like if you’re in the four, you’re in with a chance – albeit a challenge with (Linwood and Hornby) at the top there.
“(The loss to the Eagles) was hard for everybody – I certainly took it pretty hard. I know the boys were definitely gunning for it and thought we were in with a good chance, but on the day the Eagles were just better, to be fair.
“We probably missed a couple of opportunities, the Eagles came out of the blocks quicker and had more want and desire, and executed better than we did. It wasn’t through lack of effort.”
But the result cannot diminish the significant strides made by the rebuilding Knights under Lester, who returned to the club after a trail-blazing stint in Canada.
Riccarton finished last in the 2018 Massetti Cup with just two wins. But after tough away losses in the opening two rounds to the Keas and Panthers this season, the Knights proved themselves as one of the most competitive outfits in the premiership.
During the second half of the season Riccarton pushed top-two heavyweights Linwood and Hornby all the way, and went down to third-placed finishers Northern Bulldogs (who they upset at Crosbie Park in Round 4) by just four points at Murphy Park.
But the Knights were left to rue two-point losses to Celebration Lions and Halswell Hornets, who both finished well out of finals contention.
“We competed throughout the season pretty well, other than the first few games and the last game all our losses were within eight points,” Lester says.
“There’s definitely been improvement, and that’s why (missing the finals) was a real lost opportunity. We were able to compete strongly with the top three teams. Yet we had some subpar performances against the teams near the bottom.”
“It’s just a little bit of inconsistency in our game, that’s why we didn’t quite get to where we wanted to be.”
Winning on the road will also be a priority for the Knights in 2020. Their only losses at Crosbie Park were to the Keas and Panthers, but they picked up just one away victory – against bottom-placed Papanui Tigers in Round 12.
But they are not putting their cue in the rack for 2019 just yet. Eager to confirm their status as ‘best of the rest’, Lester says the club has its sights set on collecting the Gore Cup.
“We don’t want to go away from the season emptyhanded,” he says.
“Our goal was to make the top four, so it will be interesting to see how we do bounce back from it, after getting so close.
“But we’re definitely gunning for the Gore Cup, that’s where we’re at and that’s what we’re playing for. It would be nice to take some silverware and end the season on a positive note. Really looking for some reward and build towards next year.”
Lester admits coming into the season he was concerned with the lack of depth and old heads in his squad, but the performances of his younger brigade have been an overwhelming positive.
“Depth is definitely something we didn’t have throughout the season. In saying that, we were fairly fortunate with injuries – they didn’t play a huge role,” he explains.
“Some guys that came in with little experience stood up and some older statesman stepped up as well. As a team, there definitely has been some improvement and great performers. Just the inconsistency was the thing that let us down.”
While relative newcomers such as Zion Kamana and Gaius Reweti caught the eye throughout the Massetti Cup season, and the likes of Rob Nepia and Rockcote Canterbury Bulls forward Rueben Te Amo provided crucial guidance, two ageless stalwarts have been integral to holding the Knights’ campaign together.
Club legends Shane Tamatea and Justin Lynch were two of just a handful of Riccarton players to appear in all 14 regular-season games. Hooker Lynch scored 10 tries for the second straight season – a remarkable effort for a No.9.
“They’ve been there, done that. The rest of the team look to them as the leaders. I thought both of them played really well,” Lester praises.
“Justin was almost ruled out of our (Round 13) game against Celebration and we gave him until the Saturday to see if he could play. He made it onto the field and had a great game and we won.
“Shane, he’s the same age as me, we played together from 2002 to 2007, so he’s done very well to get his body in shape to play every game this season.”
Meanwhile, Lester – a member of the Knights’ 2002 and ’04 premiership-winning teams, as well as representing Canterbury – is relishing being back on the CRL scene.
His time in Canada saw him set up rugby league in the country and coach the national team, the Wolverines, for six years, but the Riccarton role is fast-tracking his coaching education in comparison.
“I’ve definitely enjoyed it, it’s been a bit of a different challenge with regular games week in, week out, and just having your finger on the pulse.
“Working towards a goal there and not getting too repetitive, making sure the guys are focused. In the past I’ve haven’t had that many games to work with.
“There’s definitely been some learning for me as well, but I’ve enjoyed working with the boys. They’re a good bunch of lads and I’m looking forward to next season.”
GORE CUP SCHEDULE
5th v 6th – Riccarton Knights v Halswell Hornets @ Crosbie Park, 2.45pm, Saturday, August 10