As 2016 winds down, kiwileaguecentral.com takes a look at the 10 most-read stories from our first year. At #9 is our take on the day the Otahuhu Leopards were relegated from Auckland’s first division for the very first time.
Around this time of the year six seasons ago Otahuhu and Mt Albert were fighting it out in the Fox Memorial Premiership Grand Final.
Otahuhu won 22-18 that day in 2010, adding another chapter to what is arguably the greatest club rivalry in New Zealand league.
But last Saturday they met in a much different set of circumstances, and before a ball had even been kicked there was an air of defeatedness at Bert Henham Park in Mt Wellington.
With Northcote having already played, and won, in the earlier game on Saturday, Otahuhu knew their fate was sealed; relegation to the second division for the first time in their 105-year history.
As Mt Albert walked off at half-time with a 26-8 lead someone yelled from the Otahuhu club deck to a friend below, “we’re looking forward to travelling out to Pakuranga in the second division next year, see you there”.
Dark humour. Dark day. Or maybe it was just the Lion Red talking.
On the field the Leopards gave it everything against a well-drilled Lions side, but were no match in an eventual 46-24 loss.
Their attitude from the coaching staff right through to the players on a tough day was commendable, down to the team giving a standing ovation to their supporters in what will be their last first division game for at least a year.
Minutes after his team had hammered the very final nail into the coffin for Otahuhu in 2016, even Mt Albert coach Willie Swann was feeling mournful, “sad old day for this proud club, very sad,” he said of Otahuhu’s plight.
Home to five Kiwi international captains, more than any other club in the world, owners of 12 Fox Memorial titles, 12 Roope Roosters and currently the producer of more NRL graduates than any other New Zealand club. So where to now for Otahuhu?
Players leaving is a given when you drop out of the first division, money can dry up and all of a sudden you get into a rut which takes years, not months, to get out of. Some never do – just look at the famous clubs currently in the Sharman Cup.
There are other examples of clubs who have bounced straight back.
Otahuhu were holding up a brave front in the immediate aftermath.
“We have got plans in motion right now…we don’t want to lose anybody, but if they are going to be poached by another club we want to know early,” Otahuhu Leopards president Bruce Shaw told kiwileaguecentral.com.
“We are going to have a tough year next season in the Sharman Cup, we want to win it.
“We will ask our players to give us a year, it’s going to be a full year and we want to be back in the Fox next year.
“It has sunk in now.”
(Photo: Connor Purcell takes the ball forward for Otahuhu v Mt Albert).