KEAS MAINTAIN THIRST FOR COMPLETING PREMIERSHIP SIX-PACK
Linwood Keas have broken virtually every Canterbury Rugby League premiership record available during their streak of five straight Grand Final victories.
But a high player turnover rate last summer – and the consequent elevation of several youngsters to first grade – ensures lack of motivation won’t be a factor when they face archrivals Hornby Panthers in Sunday’s Bartercard NZ CRL Men’s Premiership decider at Ngā Puna Wai.
Meanwhile, one of their most experienced players is as hungry as any to get his hands on the Pat Smith Trophy while wearing the green jersey. In recent years Andrew Auimatagi has been more familiar as a sideline figure, coaching Linwood’s 2016-19 Grand Final triumphs over the Panthers.
After handing the reins to his former charges, Aga Fiso and Iuma Mulitalo, last year, Auimatagi made a few cameos for the short-handed Keas but did not play in the gripping 2020 Grand Final defeat of Northern Bulldogs.
“I said last year to Iuma and Aga, I’m always there to help out – it was never the plan to play premier footy I guess, but we’ve had a bit of player movement,” Auimatagi explains.
“I love the game still and it’s just ended up that way. The body’s not too used to it with that four-year period off and getting used to the contact again has been the biggest challenge.”
The long-serving Canterbury Bulls coach has been a regular fixture on the field for the Keas this year, however, and is set to play a key role from five-eighth this weekend. Auimatagi also has a Grand Final record as a player to improve on: he featured in the Keas’ 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2015 (as player-coach) losses, with his only win coming in 2008, when he scored a try in the 30-22 win over Papanui Tigers. Auimatagi missed the club’s 2005 Grand Final victory with injury.
The prime motivation ahead of Sunday’s blockbuster for veterans Auimatagi, captain and three-time Mel Cooke Trophy winner Alex Todd, vice-captain Michael Nicholls-Cane, Paul Sauni, Matthew Sauni, Phil Wahnig and Penitito Ilalio, though, is sharing success with a batch of Keas newcomers.
“It’s quite refreshing for some of the guys that have been there for a while to help bring the young guys through,” Auimatagi says.
“It’s awesome to see some of a young ones coming into the premier team now – Uriah (Tuli), George (Faaiva) – it’s exciting for the older guys to be a part of that special experience for them.”
Auimatagi and co. will have some invaluable advice for the tyros as they line up for the biggest game of the rugby league careers to date.
“Just acknowledge the nerves. They’re always going to be three, it’s human nature, it’s just excitement. Reinforcing that the boys have done their job well all year, nothing changes on Grand Final Day – it’s just probably a little bit faster and it’s only one game left, so everyone throws everything in. That’s pretty much all we can help them with.”
The Keas advanced to their seventh consecutive Grand Final with a 14-10 eclipse of the table-topping Panthers in a torrid major semi two weeks ago.
It continued the trend of hard-fought clashes between the teams in 2021 – the Panthers won 14-10 at home in Round 4, before the Keas turned the tables 30-24 in Round 12 – and across the past six seasons of an incredible modern rivalry.
“That’s always the goal, to win that semi,” Auimatagi says.
“It was a pretty physical game – playing Hornby at Leslie (Park) is always tough, so we were pleased to get the win and just rest up because there were a few sore bodies after that one.
“It’s been close all year between the teams. We’re expecting a tough, determined Hornby team to come out on Sunday.
“We both know each other’s games fairly well, so it’s about which team does all those little things really well. A bit of luck here and there, and you never know, hopefully you’re on the better side of things.”
Meanwhile, Auimatagi heaped praise on his coaching successors, Fiso and Mulitalo, who hung up the boots after the 2017 and 2018 Grand Finals, respectively, before coaching the Keas to Canterbury Cup success in 2019 and a fifth straight Pat Smith Trophy win last year.
“They complement each other well. Iuma’s probably underrated in terms of his game intelligence and his smart footy mind. He’s a great leader and an unsung hero who’s done great things behind the scenes, coaching our 18s and our women’s team this year. He’s one of our great clubmen.
“We’ve got Aga, on the other hand, who’s probably more vocal but the presence and mana he has within our club, he’s someone that the boys look up to. They are a really good team.”
Linwood’s tight-knit rugby league community has been at the heart of their title-winning dynasty – and Auimatagi expects to see a sea of green in the Ngā Puna Wai stands after COVID-19 limited crowd numbers in 2020.
“Last year there was some restrictions, but this year it’s going to be awesome. There’s eight different clubs represented on Grand Final Day, so that’s awesome for Canterbury league and we’re hoping our club can get behind us, we’re looking forward to it.”
BARTERCARD NZ CRL MEN’S PREMIERSHIP – 2021 GRAND FINAL: 3pm, Sunday, August 15 @ Ngā Puna Wai