By Will Evans
A devastating first-half performance from the Linwood Keas laid the platform for a convincing 29-10 defeat of the Hornby Panthers in the 2016 CRL grand final at AMI Stadium on September 4.
Linwood scored the first five tries of the match inside 25 minutes, and although Hornby clawed back bravely to score the only two tries thereafter, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Keas from securing their first premiership since 2008.
Linwood enjoyed an ideal start, with halfback Toimoana Sepuloni’s kick in the first set of the match forcing a line dropout. In the ensuing set, Matthew Sauni’s cut-out pass sent winger William Yeow over out wide to open the scoring for the Keas.
The minor premiers repelled Hornby’s early attacking raids, and after Sepuloni’s boot again saw Panthers fullback Dene Grace trapped in-goal, Keas five-eighth Daniel Hartley stepped his way through from close range. Hartley slotted the conversion for a 10-0 lead.
Hartley was at the forefront again as the Keas extended their advantage soon afterwards, slipping a deft pass to Matthew Sauni, who proved too hard to stop close to the line. Nuggetty pivot Hartley added the extras to put Linwood in total control at 16-0.
Sepuloni continued to toy with the Panthers, earning yet another repeat set with a raking kick before scoring a neat kick-and-chase try. The clever playmaker then made a break to put the Keas on attack from the restart, and grubbered for back-rower Michael Nicholls-Cane to dot down. Hartley converted both for Linwood to take a commanding 28-0 lead.
Hornby received some belated respite at the half-hour mark as winger Tauvale Tauvale powered over in the right-hand corner, and veteran back-rower James Baxendale lifted the Panthers’ spirits further by nailing the sideline conversion.
The Panthers were denied back-to-back tries when referee Adam Burns pulled halfback Tevin Arona’s runaway effort back due to a forward pass, but importantly they managed to keep the Keas at bay for the remainder of the first half.
Hornby survived three line dropouts early in the second stanza, but the underdogs’ attempts to eat further into the big deficit came up empty. The Panthers adopted a ‘catch-up footy’ style, which produced plenty of offloads, but not enough direction or go-forward – and far too many handling errors.
The breakthrough finally came in the 68th minute, with Panthers winger Sonny Karena scoring off a short ball from skipper Corey Lawrie.
Hartley sealed the result with six minutes left, however, snapping a field goal to give Linwood a 19-point buffer. The Keas’ rapturous celebrations were partly a reflection of the team’s heartbreaking extra-time loss to Papanui in last year’s decider – a defeat they can now put behind them after a well-deserved triumph.
“(Linwood) has been the benchmark for the last two years,” Lawrie said post-match.
“They played the best 40 minutes I’ve seen for a long time, and hats off to a team that can play like that.”
Linwood captain Aga Fiso was lost for words during his victory speech, but paid tribute to the clubs’ supporters, juniors and families for their part in the Keas’ triumph.
“It doesn’t feel real, it’s been a lot of hard work,” Fiso said.
Erwin Sauni collected the prestigious Mel Cooke Trophy as man-of-the-match.
Linwood Keas 29 (William Yeow, Daniel Hartley, Matthew Sauni, Toimoana Sepuloni, Michael Nicholls-Cane tries; Hartley 4 goals; Hartley field goal) defeated Hornby Panthers (Tauvale Tauvale, Sonny Karena tries; James Baxendale goal) at AMI Stadium, Addington. Half-time: Linwood 28-6.
LINWOOD KEAS: Shane Bowden, William Yeow, Erwin Sauni, Phillip Wahnig, Danny Latu, Daniel Hartley, Toimoana Sepuloni (vc), Chris Bamford, Alani Kakoi, Alex Todd, Jiordan Fidow-Kele, Matthew Sauni, Michael Nicholls-Cane. Interchange: Paul Sauni (c), Agaese Fiso (c), Siona Tuiloma, Iuma Mulitalo. Coach: Andrew Auimatagi.
HORNBY PANTHERS: Dene Grace, Tauvale Tauvale, Craig Smith, Eugene Spooner, Sonny Karena, Sean Spooner (vc), Tevin Arona, Caleb Tohovaka, James Hawkins, Nick Stewart, Jesse Rogers, Corey Lawrie (c), James Baxendale. Interchange: David Tongotongo, Tyrone Arona, Paradise Mann, Damien Papuni. Coach: Jed Lawrie.