Mon, Nov 15, 2021 8:35 AM
It's fins up to another NPC final for Tasman backline stars Leicester Fainga'anuku and Alex Nankivell. Photo Shuttersport
They say that “if you want to be the best, you need to beat the best”, and that is exactly what Tasman did on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Napier.
The Hawke’s Bay Magpies have swept all before them this season, qualifying top for the NPC premiership play-offs and retaining the Ranfurly Shield with skill and style.
The last time the sides met, Hawke’s Bay won 34-22, handing Tasman a lesson which head coach Andrew Goodman said they had taken special notice of.
And what quick learners the Mako are.
They tweaked their game plan, rattled the home side at breakdown and lineout time, while flying up on defence to frustrate and stunt the Bay’s normally-potent attack.
The result was a 33-27 victory.
“We had a really deep look at that [previous] game … where we could grow and get better,” said Andrew.
“So, to see some growth in those areas today was very pleasing. The learnings we took out of that game we have used as motivation through the last few weeks … particularly around edge defence and taking their time away from them … I think we did particularly well in those areas.”
Tasman’s effort was by no means perfect, mistakes coupled with poor discipline frequently letting their opponent back into the match.
But, as they showed against Wellington the previous week, the southern side seemed to bring a slight edge in desperation to the contest.
And it doesn’t seem to matter who pulls on the red jersey.
The loss of hugely-influential lock Pari Pari Parkinson last weekend should have cast a shadow over team selection.
Instead, it opened the door for club players Antonio Shalfoon and Max Hicks to showcase their skills at a higher level.
Young halfback Louie Chapman is becoming more assured as the season goes on, flanker Anton Segner has been a revelation when given regular game time, winger Timoci Tavatavanawai is a ball of energy both with and without the ball.
Other relatively-unheralded performers such as props Sam Matenga, Isi Tu’ungafasi, Luca Inch, Jacob Norris, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta and Macca Springer stood up when required, underlining the fact that Tasman is not all about recruiting star players, but more about building depth from the base.
The newbies’ enthusiasm and desire to do justice to the jersey, coupled with a rich seam of Super Rugby experience running through the squad, make for a formidable mix.
Andrew said the new players had thrived in the Mako environment.
“They are just getting more opportunities … that’s all it takes, they are just getting better and better each week. Guys like Sam Matenga who has been a mainstay at tighthead, Louie Chapman, who over the last few weeks has grown massively for us, plus Antonio Shalfoon and Te Ahiwaru [Cirikidaveta].”
Despite what appeared a serious injury late in the game to Segner threatening to further deplete Tasman’s stocks, Andrew remains philosophical.
“It’s been one of those seasons, but there are always guys stepping in … they are getting opportunities and taking them.
“That’s what I love about this squad. We probably haven’t got the names that we have had over the last couple of years but we have belief and this team will never die wondering, they’ll leave it all out there which is all you can ask.”
When it comes to play-off time, Tasman’s record is second to none.
A few of this squad have featured in the past two successful finals, but this side is vastly different to that which went unbeaten through the 2019 season.
It will also be considerably revamped from the 2020 champion side.
That is where the coaches deserve a pat on the back.
Unlike most repeat champion provincial sides of days gone by, the modern turnover rate is immense.
All Black commitments, injuries, defections and shifting allegiances mean NPC sides lack the continuity of old, putting pressure on coaching teams to not only bring new players up to speed, but also to build from within.
And it pays big dividends, as so vividly displayed at McLean Park this afternoon.
Tasman’s final opponents will be Waikato, who today beat Canterbury 17-14 in the other semi-final, the NPC decider likely played in Rotorua.