Belief carries Waikato into national final
‘‘Someone’s got to win, why can’t it be us?’’
That was the attitude the Waikato rugby league team so sublimely embraced in their 32-18 upset win over the Counties Manukau Stingrays in Auckland on Saturday, which in turn propelled them to a surprise spot in next weekend’s national premiership final.
Having last year had to win their way up from the championship division after being placed in the second tier under the New Zealand Rugby League’s restructuring of the competition, Waikato were then competitive in their opening two matches against the Akarana Falcons and Canterbury Bulls, but eventually beaten, before their perseverance was eventually rewarded in a tough final-day scenario at The Trusts Arena.
If Akarana beat Canterbury in the early fixture to finish top, Waikato still had hope of making the decider, but it would require a win over a much more fancied Counties Manukau - a perennial stronghold, last year’s runners-up, and who hadn’t lost to a Waikato or WaiCoa Bay side since 2005 - when the Northern Zone Challenge Cup was first played for between the two teams.
And while the match was a see-sawing affair for the most part, it was a determined and classy Waikato who put on three successive second-half tries - as winger Eric Taiulu bagged a hat-trick and captain and fullback Aaron Jolley was again hugely influential in sparking their raids - to seal not only that silverware back, but also a chance to write themselves more history, having never before won a top-flight national title.
Coach Morgan Kutia said they had fully embraced the underdog tag during this competition, but that they had plenty of confidence within themselves that they could foot it with the so-called heavyweights.
‘‘That’s the key to playing at this level,’’ he said. ‘‘We talked about that at the very beginning of the season, that if we were going to go deep into this competition we need to have that self belief. And for guys it hasn’t always been there, but it’s been nourished along the way.
‘‘We said that at any stage of this competition any team can beat the other, and we hoped that today [Saturday] was our day, and that’s what happened.
‘‘The only people that believed in us were ourselves.’’
Kutia and his team were so task-focused they went into the game without even taking notice of the score between the Falcons and Bulls, because, in any case, they were desperate for a victory anyway, to avoid finishing fourth and playing the promotion/relegation fixture. ‘‘All we needed was a win,’’ Kutia said. Holding the Stingrays out early and opening the scoring against the run of play was a start, then holding them out for the last 25 minutes was a fine effort.
Waikato celebrate their upset of the Counties Manukau Stingrays on Saturday.