Be­lief car­ries Waikato into na­tional fi­nal

Hamilton Press - - OUT & ABOUT - AARON GOILE

‘‘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.

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