CRL FINALS FEVER GRIPS GREYMOUTH
Wingham Park in Greymouth is steeped in rugby league history, hosting many memorable club grand finals, myriad Thacker Shield encounters and West Coast-Canterbury representative fixtures, the province’s matches against France, Australia and Great Britain, and a Test between New Zealand and the 1954 Lions tourists.
High-profile footy at the hallowed venue has been comparatively scarce during the past three decades, however, which underlines the importance of the occasion this Saturday when West Coast’s flagship team, Greymouth Greyhounds, host Linwood Keas in the ISC Canterbury Cup semi-finals.
Losing just one of their 15 regular-season games, the Greyhounds finished top of the CRL Premier Reserves ladder in just their second year in the competition. With assistance from Canterbury Rugby League and the commitment of rival clubs, the perennial road warriors have played four fixtures at Wingham Park in 2023. Greymouth won the Thacker Shield against Papanui in April and subsequently defended the revived prize against Shirley, Linwood and Halswell.
“It’s a good thing for the lads to get a home semi after all the travel in the last two years,” Greyhounds coach Kurt Dixon says.
“We set that goal at the start of the year to end up at the top, so we’ve got to that stage and ticked that box.”
The Greyhounds’ performances and the return of senior football on the West Coast has proved a shot in the arm for rugby league in the region, Dixon enthuses.
“The local league fraternity and the whole town is abuzz about it, lots of people talking about it. It’ll be good for the boys to run out on the old park and see the stands full. We had a couple of decent crowds for the games (earlier this season).
“It’s definitely given the game a boost, and for the young kids, too. There’s still a bit of league around for them and they look up to these young lads, as they still are.”
Given the close relationship between CRL and WCRL for more than a century, the Greyhounds have been a wonderful addition to the second-tier competition in 2022-23.
The club’s competitiveness and commitment to making the trek over Arthur’s Pass on most winter weekends have been a revelation in the ISC Canterbury Cup, as well as being a key component of Canterbury Rugby League’s overall path forward.
“Having a semi-final being played in Greymouth is an incredible achievement on a number of levels,” CRL CEO Malcolm Humm explains.
“A key goal withing the CRL 2023-26 Strategic Plan is, ‘pathway opportunities are fostered through strategic partnerships’, and the semi-final in Greymouth aligns with this strategic goal.
“For many decades Greymouth and the wider West Coast have been strong allies of Canterbury, so to get to a point where they can host a semi-final is considered significant. Additionally, having Greymouth Greyhounds compete in our men’s Premier Reserve grade this year has certainly bought a new dimension to the competition – and we believe this lends to further opportunities in the future.”
But amid the fanfare, the Greyhounds are laser-focused on making the most of this Saturday’s opportunity: namely, overcoming the fourth-placed Keas – who won the competition in 2022 – and earning a place on Grand Final Day at Ngā Puna Wai on August 20.
A youthful Greyhounds line-up qualified for the 2022 playoffs in second spot, giving them two bites at the Grand Final cherry…only to go out in straight sets to the Keas at Ngā Puna Wai and Hornby Panthers at Papanui Domain.
“We built a good base last year and they were pretty gutted, because a lot of them wouldn’t have been in that situation – in a semi and losing, then losing the next one,” Dixon recalls.
“But they understood what it feels like to get to that point and go down on the wrong end of things.
“This year, with a few older heads coming in – Jordy Campbell, Luke Negri coming back, Bud Graham and Ashley Black – with some of the younger boys, some of who have played at a decent level, it’s a good mix.
“I’m proud of the way they’ve gone to task this year, especially because we don’t get to train together – it’s a unique situation. The (Canterbury-based) boys train over there but we don’t get a full hit-out, so it’s a tough one when it comes to gameday.
“This Friday night we’ll have a bit of a captain’s run, a bit of fun for half an hour, throw the ball around, run a few plays.
“We’ve set some goals and they’ve all bought into it – it’s just hard leaving a few out this week. The coach has got to do it and I don’t mind that side, but it’s hard seeing the boys’ faces when you tell them they won’t be playing this week.
“They’re a good squad and they certainly understand.”
Dixon gave an insight on the Greyhounds’ usual gameday routine, how the team will make the most of another opportunity to host, and what the return of senior football to Wingham Park means to the West Coast Rugby League fraternity.
“We’re on the road at half past seven (for games in Christchurch), the boys are up early and are good at getting a cooked breakfast in them before they hit the road,” he explains.
“(This weekend) will be fun. We did it earlier in the year, all go out for breakfast together and then they can all go and do their own thing and relax for a few hours. It’s definitely good getting a bit of a sleep-in – especially with the (Warriors) playing on Friday.
“But it’s a plus to not hit the road, we’ve racked up some k’s. It’s been real good for the leaguies, the old boys at home that follow us and get to sit in the stand and think, ‘thirty or forty years ago I was out there playing and there’s still some good footy on the old sacred Wingham Park’.”
The finals format change to sudden-death semi-finals for the ISC Canterbury Cup and Division One heightens the intensity for the showdown with Linwood.
If things don’t Greymouth’s way on Saturday, there’s no second chances this time around – a deflating prospect for a team that has produced a dominant season to date. But Dixon has taken steps to ensure neither nerves, nor complacency, will be an issue for his side.
“Last year we had that second life – like the prems still do – but she’s do or die,” the Greyhounds’ enthusiastic mentor says.
“But we spoke about it last week, we’ve just got to go out and play our game and not worry about what Linwood’s going to bring.
“Just play the football that’s going to suit us, the old cliches: complete, get to the kick, kick to the corners and turn them around. But we’re lucky, we’ve got a young side, we’re fit and if we stick to how we want to play we should deliver what we want on Saturday.”
The Greyhounds have had the wood on the Keas this season, winning their two home-and-away fixtures by identical 32-6 scorelines.
Finals footy is a different beast, however, and Dixon is wary of the Keas’ experience factor the visitors bring with them on State Highway 73. But without getting ahead of himself, he’s clear that nothing short of a grand final and the ISC Canterbury Cup trophy will suffice.
“They’ll have some old heads who have been there, done that many times so they’ll be up for it to come over here and spoil the party. We’d be the same in their situation.
“I’m excited, because if we can pull this one off the boys will get a feel for what it’s like to go into a grand final week. There’s people talking about trying to get buses over (from the Coast to Christchurch) – there will be a good crowd wander over from this side if we make it, and it’d be a hell of a hooley on the way home, win or lose.
“But that’s definitely the goal. We’ve got this far and I’m quietly confident that if we play the football we talked about and have been playing along the way, we should come out on the right end of it.”
The ISC Canterbury Cup semi-final between Greymouth Greyhounds and Linwood Keas kicks off at Wingham Park on Saturday at 1.45pm. Ashburton Barbarians and Hornby Panthers will vie for the other grand final berth at Robilliard Park from 1pm.