UNBEATEN KEAS LAST HURDLE IN RESURGENT PANTHERS’ BACK-TO-BACK BID
Hornby Panthers’ premiership defence has been far from smooth, forced to walk the tightrope for several weeks just to keep their bid for back-to-back Canterbury Rugby League titles alive. But after finding form at the right team of the year with a new-look and rapidly improving line-up, the club finds itself facing Linwood Keas in the Pat Smith Trophy grand final for the sixth time in seven seasons.
The Panthers occupied a position in the bottom half of the Massetti Cup ladder for most of the regular season. With 10 of their 2021 premiership heroes missing – headlined by captain and Mel Cooke Trohpy winner Sincere Harraway, who joined Eastern Eagles in the off-season – they lost their first three games and had only three wins on the board with six rounds remaining.
But a last-gasp 28-26 comeback win over Riccarton and a hard-fought 16-10 defeat of Northern would prove invaluable. The Panthers leapfrogged the Bulldogs into fourth spot on for-and-against in the last round courtesy of a 104-6 demolition of Papanui.
From there, the Panthers have trekked to Wainoni Park to eliminate the Eagles (28-22) and ventured to Halswell Domain to subdue the Hornets (16-6) – who had beaten them by 24 points just three weeks earlier – in sudden-death finals matches.
“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster of a year, losing so many from last year’s grand final and waiting for the young ones to mature, to build up to that intense level of footy they need,” long-serving Hornby coach Jed Lawrie explains.
“But they got there and came out and proved in the last couple of weeks they deserved to be here. Ten from the grand final team – it’s pretty hard to replace that experience. They’ve had their ups and downs, played some really good footy at times but just needed that self-belief.
“There was some big moments just to make the top four. The most pleasing part has been how they embraced the opportunity over the last few weeks and played a really tough style of footy.”
Caleb Murphy, Isileli Pulu, Christian Fetu and Zinzaan Martin scoring the Panthers’ points in the prelim against the Hornets reflected the changing of the guard at the club.
Lawrie has no concerns about his youthful line-up bucklingn under the pressure this Sunday – while he has the vast experience of multiple grand final specialists to rely on when the going gets tough.
“The new generation thrive on that sort of stuff these days,” he says.
“There will be some nerves there, but having ‘Baxy’ (James Baxendale), Corey Lawrie and a few others from last year’s grand final in the forward pack will help them along.”
Initially set to step down as coach after steering Hornby to its long-awaited premiership last year, Jed Lawrie – who was in charge as the Panthers agonisingly went down to the Keas in four straight grand finals from 2016-19 – could not resist the challenge of attempting to lead the club to consecutive championships.
But this will be the last hurrah for Lawrie and possibly some other club stalwarts, too – though Lawrie isn’t allowing sentiment to creep into Hornby’s grand final preparations.
“We haven’t talked about it – we don’t want that to be a talking point,” Lawrie insists.
“These boys go out and play their best for their families, for their supporters. Whatever happens, happens.
“I’ve been around long enough … the guys coming through have proved they can do a good job after us.”
Blocking the resurgent Panthers’ path to repeat glory is a Keas side that is yet to taste defeat in 2022.
A draw against the Hornets is the closest the Iuma Mulitalo-coached side has come to be knocked off this season, while the Keas were white-hot in a 40-10 semi-final defeat of the Hornets in their last assignment a fortnight ago.
An experienced core of Daniel Hartley, Alani Kakoi, Penetito Ilalio, Michael Nicholls-Cane, and Paul, Matt and Erwin Sauni remains at Linwood, while young guns Kyle Amer, Etelani Pouli, Makarini Mohi and Mika Moemalo Ulu will be eager to finish off a big season with a premiership medal.
The Keas can also claim a psychological edge from a 30-10 early-season win over the Panthers at home and a gripping 28-24 victory at Leslie Park during the second half of the home-and-away schedule into the decider.
Lawrie knows a more confident, cohesive and formidable Panthers unit will be taking the field this weekend than the rebuilding side that faced the Keas earlier this year, however, and the effect of removing the club’s grand final millstone in 2021 can’t be discounted.
“(Going back-to-back) is a goal that I set, coming back this year. Defending it would be massive – but in front of us is an unbeaten Linwood team. We’ve got a big job ahead of us on Sunday, but it’s 13 on 13 for 80 minutes and we’ve got an opportunity, that’s the main thing.
“Every time we’ve played Linwood we’ve competed really well, we’ve just fallen away at stages. The boys are really excited.”
Linwood Keas and Hornby Panthers square off in the 2022 Bartercard CRL Men’s Premiership grand final at Ngā Puna Wai, kicking off at 3pm.