Mooloos seal a well-earned final win Waikato turns rugby fortunes around with eight wins out of nine games
What a difference a season has made for the Waikato rugby team in the Mitre 10 Cup competition under the astute coaching team of Jono Gibbes and his assistants Nathan White and Roger Randel.
After losing the Ranfurly Shield to Otago just two weeks ago, the Mooloo men got their revenge in the Championship final with a 36-13 win in Hamilton on Friday night.
In doing so, Waikato will return to the Premiership next year after just a one-season stay in the Championship.
The fortunes of the proud rugby province in 2018 are in stark contrast to the horror show of last season when the side suffered seven straight losses to end a dismal campaign.
Waikato turned around their campaign this year with eight wins out of nine — the Shield defeat the sole blemish.
It was mission accomplished for Gibbes in his one-off season back coaching Waikato.
The ex-All Black departs in the next fortnight to take on the role of director of coaching at French rugby club La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.
Gibbes, 41, quit his post as Ulster’s director of rugby to return to coach Waikato — the province he formerly played for family reasons.
He was granted a release by the Northern Ireland club on compassionate grounds in March, but in May went to La Rochelle to talk to the French Top 14 club about potentially taking over there from former French test prop Patrice Callazo, who will coach Toulon next year.
La Rochelle have appointed four coaches for next season, including former All Blacks lock Jason Eaton — just retired as La Rochelle’s captain.
Gibbes spent a decade in Europe, first going to Ireland in 2008 as Leinster’s forwards coach. He was forwards coach at French club Clermont Auvergne from 2014 to 2017 before moving to Ulster as head coach, taking over as director of rugby when Australian coach Les Kiss was replaced mid-season.
The La Rochelle squad includes five French internationals, along with former All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow and another ex-Waikato player in Hikairo Forbes.
From the outset, it looked like Waikato’s night against Otago. The hosts applied all the early pressure to create a number of chances before winger Sevu Reece (the entire competition’s leading try scorer) dotted down for the first points of the Championship final.
Midfielder Quinn Tupaea proved a handful in the first half for Waikato and was rewarded with a try.
Otago got on the board through the boot of Josh Ioane, who blasted two penalty goals, but a late try in the half to Matt Lansdown gave Waikato a comfortable 19-6 lead at the break.
However, the gap was closed early in the second half when Otago loose forward James Lentjes scored in the corner. With Ioane slotting the conversion to bring Otago back within six points, the visitors were back in the game — for all of seven seconds.
Waikato winger Tyler Campbell pushed the gap back out immediately from the kickoff when Otago’s poorly-judged attempt to bring in the ball fell into the Waikato winger’s hands with a clear run to the tryline.
A second try to Reece midway through the half all but ended any hopes of an Otago comeback, which wasn’t made any easier by Waikato dominating possession.
In the end, the Mooloos were too strong and sealed a wellearned win and a promotion that looked unlikely after losing their first three games of the season.
Inspirational captain Dwayne Sweeney and his Waikato rugby team celebrate after beating Otago in the final of the Mitre 10 Championship final at FMG Stadium Waikato on Friday night.
Job well done, Waikato coach Jono Gibbes.