By Will Evans
Hornby Panthers have secured their first Canterbury Rugby League premiership since 2013, ending Linwood Keas’ five-season tenure as Pat Smith Trophy holders with a 22-16 win in a titanic Grand Final struggle at Ngā Puna Wai.
The Panthers led for all but the first eight minutes of the match and were in front by 16 at halftime as the error-stricken Keas struggled to gain traction. But led by stalwart Andrew Auimatagi, the Keas clawed back in familiar fashion after the break as yet another classic decider between the great rivals unfolded.
The undeniable star of the show, though, was 20-year-old Hornby fullback and captain Sincere Harrraway. The gifted livewire scored a sensational solo try in each half, laid on another four-pointer and was a constant threat – as well as providing some much-needed level-heading playmaking. The Mel Cooke Trophy as player of the Grand Final was just reward for a wonderful performance.
Long-serving second-rower James Baxendale missed an early penalty goal chance but played a key role in Hornby opening the scoring in the eighth minute, his deft switch of play on the last tackle allowing Charlie Charlie to dive over out wide.
Baxendale nailed the sideline conversion for a 6-0 lead.
The Panthers’ discipline with and without the ball dropped off in the ensuing period but their defence got them out of trouble, rebuffing multiple dangerous Keas raids.
A superb one-on-one strip from ageless hooker Corey Lawrie put the Panthers hot on attack again – and brilliant fullback Sincere Harraway injected himself to create a commanding 10-point advantage. The young captain combined with Baxendale then placed a wonderful pass on the chest of Charlie, who slipped down the narrowest of corridor to plant it for a Grand Final double.
Hornby kept the foot on the pedal and went out to 16-0 at the half-hour mark through the precocious Harraway’s game-breaking class, the skipper dummying and stepping his way over for a memorable solo try.
The remainder of the half was marked by ferocious defence from both teams, while Linwood managed to survive a second line-break from Hornby’s lightweight lock Jordan Campbell and a forced line dropout from a slick Harraway grubber without any further scoreboard damage before the break.
Vital opportunities to eat into the deficit early in the second half slipped through the Keas’ fingers. Sloppy dummy-half passes foiled one raid, while five-eighth Andrew Auimatagi – featuring in his first Grand Final on the field since he was Linwood’s player-coach in 2015 – made a long bust only to contentiously be ruled to have lost the ball over the try-line.
But the Keas’ 2016-19 premiership-winning mentor would not be denied in the 48th minute after shifting to hooker, barrelling over Panthers defenders to open his side’s account. Interchange half Leon Jarden slotted the conversion from a handy position.
Memories of Grand Final fadeouts of seasons past would have come flooding back for the Panthers as the Keas went in again just three minutes later. A fairly innocuous cross-field bomb from Auimatagi was claimed by veteran centre Matthew Sauni, who slipped a great ball for winger Uili Uili to scoot 20 metres to the corner.
But just as the Keas’ experienced campaigners looked set to take control of the match, the Panthers’ contingent of youth swung it back in their favour. Harraway left Linwood defenders clutching at air in a mesmerising 20-metre, hot-stepping dash to score under the posts.
A match-sealing play dangled tantalisingly out of Hornby’s reach over the next 15 minutes – and Auimatagi took it upon himself to set up a grandstand finish with another powerhouse inspirational solo try with four minutes on the clock.
The Panthers thought they had it wrapped up with Eti Collins backed up to dot down after a 50-metre Campbell run, but they were called back courtesy of a knock-on decision.
Rapturous celebrations were only momentarily delayed, however – they saw off a desperate last-ditch Keas attacking raid to end the club’s eight-year wait for a 16th Grand Final win and kicking off a Panther party onfield that is destined to go deep into the night out Hornby way.
Few individuals would have taken as much satisfaction from the victory as Hornby coach Jed Lawrie, the losing mentor opposite Auimatagi in four straight deciders – but now the architect of a deserved premiership triumph.
Hornby Panthers 22 (Charlie Charlie 2, Sincere Harraway 2 tries; James Baxendale 3 goals) defeated Linwood Keas 16 (Andrew Auimatagi 2, Uili Uili tries; Leon Jarden 2 goals)