Hornby Panthers may still be bristling from their 29-10 loss to Linwood Keas in the 2016 CRL premiers grand final, but they reclaimed something of a psychological edge via a high-quality 22-14 victory over their arch-rivals in the major semi-final at Murphy Park a fortnight ago.
Overcoming the second-half fade-outs that plagued some of their late-season performances, the Panthers leapt out to an early 10-0 lead and stoically saw off the inevitable Keas fight-back to carve out a deserved win with their best defensive display of 2017.
“The boys put a lot of work in to prepare for Linwood and they turned up with a massive defensive effort,” Panthers coach Jed Lawrie said after the semi.
“We had a few guys out on their feet and they just kept turning up. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Aside from garnering the confidence that they have what it takes to knock off the Keas, the big reward for their win was passage straight through to the decider – the club’s eighth in 13 seasons – and booking a weekend off, crucial at this stage of a gruelling campaign.
Having an extra week’s recuperation while Linwood and Papanui belted each other from pillar to post in the preliminary final shapes as a trump card for the Panthers.
“Last year not having the week off and playing those tough (finals) games against Linwood and Papanui hurt us (in the grand final),” Lawrie said.
“Preparations have been good (this week), having the luxury of a week off has given us a couple of extra training sessions to really focus on the little areas we need to improve on.
“We had a couple of niggles, but overall we came out of (the major semi) not too bad. So instead of resting guys we’ve really been able to put some good effort in at training.”
The Panthers will, however, be without talisman James Baxendale – he has departed on his OE, leaving the veteran and his club to lament the weather-enforced postponement of the finals series.
“It’s a shame, but you can’t do much about the weather and the grand final getting pushed out a week,” Lawrie shrugged.
“He’s done a fantastic job to get us here, and the boys want to win it for ‘Baxy’ as well so there’s a bit of extra motivation for our guys.”
Baxendale’s experience and class will be difficult to replace – he has played seven grand finals in the previous 12 seasons, scoring five tries and booting 19 goals.
Better known as a back-rower in recent years, Baxendale starred in the Panthers’ charge to this year’s decider in the halfback spot vacated by Tevin Arona’s departure to the Warriors’ InTrust Super Premiership squad.
Lawrie was still unsure on Thursday afternoon about who would wear the No.7 jumper, but he knew exactly who to call upon to replace Baxendale in the game-day 17.
“Johnny Lima. We wanted to replace that experience with just as much experience.
“He’ll be floating around – we haven’t decided where he’ll play yet – but wherever he is he’ll bring a different dynamic to our team.”
The Panthers also have long-serving hardheads such as five-eighth Sean Spooner and hooker Corey Lawrie to help pick up the playmaking slack.
“Those two guys will definitely take that extra workload, but we’ve talked about everybody chipping in a bit extra to cover ‘Baxy’s’ workload,” Jed Lawrie explained.
The coach was adamant his charges will need to improve further on their last-up win over the Keas, pinpointing periods of switching off just before and after halftime that let their opponents back into the contest.
“There’s a couple of little areas, we lost our structures for a couple of periods,” Lawrie said.
“But if we can have that self-belief and defend like that again, it’s a template for this Sunday.
Lawrie also explained that last year’s painful grand final loss had played a small role in the build-up to the 2017 decider, but the idea of avenging that loss was not at the forefront of their thoughts.
“We’ve addressed the main points where we went wrong in that final, so we’re making sure we’ve learned from last year but also focussing on where we have to be at on Sunday and how we want to play.”
HORNBY PANTHERS’ ROAD TO THE 2017 GRAND FINAL
Round 1: Linwood – Won 38-12
Round 3: Aranui – Won 44-20
Round 4: Northern – Won 36-8
Round 5: Riccarton – Won 48-4
Round 6: Celebration – Lost 21-20
Round 7: Papanui – Won 24-16
Round 8: Linwood – Lost 14-8
Round 2 (postponed): Halswell – Won 52-14
Round 9: Halswell – Won 46-8
Round 10: Aranui – Won 48-20
Round 11: Northern – Won 22-10
Round 12: Riccarton – Won 34-10
Round 13: Celebration – Won 30-26
Round 14: Papanui – Won 32-12
Major Semi-final: Linwood – Won 22-14