KEAS PIP PANTHERS IN DRAMATIC PREMIERSHIP DECIDER
Linwood Keas are CRL Men’s Premiership champions again, consigning Hornby Panthers to more Grand Final heartbreak in a 16-14 cliff-hanger at Ngā Puna Wai.
The Keas earned their seventh Pat Smith Trophy in eight years – matching the record of the 1971-78 Papanui Tigers – in a dramatic finish to Happy Hire CRL Grand Final Day.
After surrendering a 12-4 lead and spending most of the second half on the back foot, the Keas conjured a go-ahead try with seven minutes to go – but they only secured the victory after surviving a last-minute Panthers penalty goal attempt.
Wily Linwood playmaker Daniel Hartley won the Mel Cooke Trophy as player of the match for the second time after a typically composed display in the finals pressure cooker.
Nerves were evident in the opening exchanges: Hornby fumbled the kick-off and the next 10 minutes were permeated by errors from both sides.
A loose Panthers pass inside their own half invited the Keas in for the first try after 12 minutes. Winger Elijah Tuhura scooped up the bouncing ball and popped it over the top for centre Te Kaia Cranwell to streak away.
But Hornby responded in exhilarating style at the 20-minute mark after Tevin Arona had his last-tackle clearing kick charged down.
Five-eighth Arona launched a counterattacking raid from inside his own half and superb play from Champ Betham and Zinzaan Martin down a narrow sideline corridor sent winger Christian Fetu over in the corner.
The Keas landed an important blow less than two minutes before the break. Halfback Etelani Pouli, interchange hooker Leon Jarden and centre Mika Moemalo combined for 2022 Grand Final match-winner Penetito Ilalio to stride away for barnstorming four-pointer, which Daniel Hartley converted for a 12-4 scoreline.
But the Panthers enjoyed the perfect start to the second half after a Keas mistake in the opening set.
Martin offloaded for a rampaging Betham, who could not be stopped from crashing over in the corner. Arona was unable to convert from touch, leaving the Massetti Cup holders four points in arrears.
But the livewire Arona pegged Hornby backed to level with a dazzling 50th-minute solo try, bouncing out of a thunderous hit and reaching out to score.
Plagued by errors and penalties, the Keas narrowly denied Panthers veteran James Baxendale on their tryline before making a long-awaited second-half visit to the opposition half via a searing Cranwell break.
But ball control and discipline continued to let Linwood down, eventually leading to the defending champs giving up the lead for the first time with 16 minutes remaining as Arona knocked off a penalty goal from a handy spot.
On the ropes, the Keas dug deep to hit the front again in the 73rd minute.
Curiously ignoring an opportunity to square up the scoreboard from a penalty, they made a rare attacking chance count with centre Mika Moemalo powering his way through three Panthers defenders to score.
Arona made a break through the middle with less than two minutes remaining and earned a penalty. But in the cruellest of finishes after such a fine individual display, he pulled the shot at goal from 30 metres out and straight in front.
The loss was Jed Lawrie’s Panthers’ sixth in Grand Finals against the Keas since 2016, now losing the last two deciders since ending their archrivals’ five-year streak in 2021. The result was particularly poignant for Baxendale and fellow stalwart Corey Lawrie, the pair both appearing in a record 12th CRL Grand Final.
Meanwhile, Linwood’s 2023 triumph arguably ranks as its unlikeliest of its dominant dynasty.
The Keas, enduring high player turnover this season, finished four points behind first-placed Hornby in the Massetti Cup, but the Iuma Mulitalo-coached outfit upset the Panthers 21-20 via a Hartley field goal in the major semi before again finding something extra on Grand Final Day.
CRL MEN’S PREMIERSHIP GRAND FINAL – PAT SMITH TROPHY CHALLENGE: Linwood Keas 16 (Te Kaio Cranwell, Penetito Ilalio, Mika Moemalo tries; Daniel Hartley 2 goals) defeated Hornby Panthers 14 (Christian Fetu, Champ Betham, Tevin Arona tries; Arona goal) at Ngā Puna Wai.