MORE GRAND FINAL HISTORY BECKONS FOR KEAS
Linwood Keas have rewritten the Canterbury Rugby League record books several times in recent years – and they can match the most dominant dynasty in CRL Grand Final history with another victory over fierce rivals Hornby Panthers on Sunday.
Linwood’s run of five straight Pat Smith Trophy Challenge triumphs from 2016-20 was unprecedented, while the club will break Papanui’s record of eight consecutive Grand Final appearances (1971-78) when the Keas appear in their ninth premiership decider in succession on Sunday.
The Keas are also eyeing off the Tigers’ – inspired by the likes of Rod Walker, Eddie Kerrigan, Kevin Williams and Mark Broadhurst – feat of winning seven Grand Finals in the space of eight years. After going down in extra-time to the Tigers in 2015, the Keas have won six of the last seven titles; the only blip during that period was a loss to the Panthers in the 2021 decider.
This time around, however, the Keas are facing a comparative dearth of Grand Final experience. And despite being the first team through to the decider, coach Iuma Mulitalo is claiming the outsiders tag in the latest instalment of a rivalry that is habitually fought on a knife’s edge.
“It’s a bit different, we had a few retire after last year and go to different sports, so we’ve got a new bunch of blokes this year,” Mulitalo explains.
“(There’s only) a handful of experienced guys, but everyone’s excited. I feel better as a coach to be an underdog. The grand final last year, we choked a bit but we got there in the end.”
Linwood battled an unfamiliar form dip during back end of the regular season, finishing four points adrift of Hornby in second spot after losing the clubs’ last two encounters.
But the Keas turned the tables on the Panthers in the major semi, getting off to a flying start at Leslie Park and withstanding a withering comeback from the home side before halfback Daniel Hartley kicked the visitors into the Grand Final with a late field goal.
“There was a lot of motivation going into that game, we hadn’t played very well against them and we had to rise to the occasion – the boys brought it on the day,” Mulitalo says of the 21-20 nail-biter.
“Daniel Hartley’s got a good boot and a good footy mind, so when it comes to those dark places he knows what to do, guides the teams around and puts us in a good position.”
The Keas are certain to lean on seasoned campaigners and regular Grand Final winners Hartley, Paul Sauni and captain Michael Nicholls as they strive for a repeat victory over the Massetti Cup holders.
Linwood also receive a major boost in the form of game-breaker Ben Ilalio’s return from injury; the blockbusting outside-back scored a mind-blowing 50-metre individual try in the final minute of last year’s Grand Final to snatch a 34-30 win over Hornby.
‘Young veterans’ such as Ketesemane Pouli, George Faaiva and Uriah Tuli, the Mel Cooke Trophy winner in the 2022 decider, also have a key role to play in a line-up laced with first-time Grand Finalists.
“It’s a young team so there’s a few playing their first Grand Final,” confirms Mulitalo, who emphasises the positive aspect of taking a relatively inexperienced side into such a big game.
“This year with a lot of new players, they bring a lot of youth and energy into the squad. They’re pretty excited this week and that’s the big motivation.”
Linwood’s record of five wins in six Grand Finals against Hornby since 2016 – as well as the major semi upset earlier this month – may provide something of a psychological edge.
But Mulitalo is acutely aware of the class and depth the Panthers’ side is brimming with.
“Hornby’s played well all year and they deserved to finish first in the round robin,” he says.
“Tevin Arona guides them around, he’s their main player and we’ve got to focus on shutting him down, shut his kicking game down. At dummy-half they’ve got Corey Lawrie there, another we have to keep our eye on, and just stopping their go-forward with their big middles
“They’ve got a good forward pack and good edge players, Champ Betham and (James) Baxendale.”
As well as sustained excellence, another quality Linwood and Hornby share is a staunch and prolific fanbase – and the Keas faithful will be out in force at Ngā Puna Wai on Sunday with three of their teams featuring in the four matches on Happy Hire CRL Grand Final Day.
“It’s our favourite time of the year,” Mulitalo enthuses.
“To have all three teams in the Grand Final last year, then to do it again has just been awesome. It brings a bit of happiness to the club – even though we’ve got no clubrooms, we celebrate like we do.”