By Jonty Dine and Peter Jones
The Tasman Mako were welcomed home like heroes on Sunday morning following historic back to back Mitre 10 Cup Premierships.
The Mako arrived at Nelson Airport to plenty of fanfare a day after its nail-biting 13-12 win over Auckland.
Skipper David Havili was first through the gates with the Mitre 10 Cup in hand.
“I still can’t believe we have done it, it’s still a bit surreal, to bring it home to our franchise and our wee city is pretty special.”
He says the final was incredibly intense.
“It was to and fro, we had opportunities we should’ve taken but at the end it came down to a couple of moments that added up and we were lucky enough to take the ones we needed to take the win.”
Despite the underdog tag, Havili says they were certainly not going to lie down for Auckland.
“They are a great side, you can’t fault them, they have been the pinnacle of the Mitre 10 Cup this year and we had to go up there and take it from them.”
It was Havili who would ultimately seal the victory with a penalty and turnover in the final minute.
The five-test All Black let out a roar of emotion as he stood over his defeated opposition.
The reaction was the culmination of a difficult season for Havili.
He was forced to spend time on the sideline following emergency bowel surgery and despite blistering Super Rugby form, was left out of the All Blacks squad to tour Australia.
“I’ve been through a bit of a tough year this year and it just came out in that moment.”
Asked what makes this side so special, Havili is quick to point out its success goes far beyond the players.
“It’s the whole region not just the team, the support we get around here, it’s the management, guys we have backing us, and everyone buys into what we want to achieve. The year we have had has been unbelievable and I’m just so grateful to be able to share this moment with my close mates.”
On the subject of a three-peat, Havili says there are celebrations to be had first.
“It’s going to be a long week, I’m going to enjoy it and we will sort that out next year.”
Havili and the Mako arrive home at Nelson Airport on Sunday morning. Photo: Evan Barnes/Shuttersport
If last year’s Mitre 10 premiership clean sweep represented a “coming-of-age” for top of the south rugby, Saturday’s effort at Eden Park underlined Tasman’s arrival as a New Zealand provincial rugby powerhouse.
Going back-to-back with a settled squad is one thing, having to almost totally re-shape your forward pack, then deal with a string of injuries to key players, including another early in the final, is quite another.
The 2020 Mako squad epitomises the word ‘resilience’.
The seeds of their victory over Auckland were sewn during a testing series of round robin matches. Heavy losses to Auckland, North Harbour and Canterbury sent them back to the drawing board.
Tasman’s ability to learn from their poor performances, remedy the problems and improve at the business end of the season was integral to their effort at Eden Park.
For that, their team leaders, coaches and management must take a huge amount of credit.
Co-head coach Andrew Goodman put tonight’s win down to “a lot of hard work and a lot of belief”.
“We have flown under the radar a bit this season. Not many people were expecting that result but we had belief … we just chipped away in the background and knew we had a performance in us that could win us back-to-back titles.
“That defensive block towards the end when Auckland were hard on attack just sums up what the jersey means to the boys, a lot of heart went into that block.”
Losing a key player such as playmaker Mitch Hunt early in the decider with concussion might have rattled lesser teams, but the Mako covered his absence with aplomb.
While only nine players remained from the team that contested last year’s final, Goodman said it was the calibre of those players that proved so vital.
“At the core of that group is Dave Havili, Mitch Hunt, Quin Strange, Alex Nankivell, Andrew Makalio and Fin Christie … our leadership group have been outstanding for us every week. They have driven the standards … I am just so proud of not only them but the whole squad.”
When asked to compare last year’s triumph with tonight’s effort, Goodman noted, “It was pure happiness to win it the first time, that will hold a very special place in my heart, but this is really satisfying.
“It has been a lot of hard work and we have learned some hard lessons on the way … the main thing is that the boys have kept believing – as a coaching group, as a management group and as a playing group.
“We have learned from those occasions when we didn’t perform to our best and tonight, we put in a performance that I thought was worthy of a win. We probably created a few more scoring opportunities.”
Goodman also took time to praise his fellow coaches.
“Shane Christie has been a magician with our defence over the last few years, he’s done an amazing job. And the work Clarke Dermody, in his last year with us, has done with our young forward pack has had a lot to do with the result.”
Halfback Finlay Christie gives an autograph to a young fan. Photo: Jonty Dine
Deputy mayor Judene Edgar says the Mako season reflects the year we have had as a region.
“It’s a great analogy, we have had our ups and downs, but we fought back in the end.”
Judene says it is amazing to have something for our community to celebrate.
“I think we all need that, you see the looks on the faces of the people here and I think it says it all, we are just so incredibly proud of the guys, it was an amazing team effort.”
The Mako won a ferocious, stop-start contest, having to defend for all they were worth in the final stages as the home side threw everything into attack.
At half time Tasman led 10-9, Auckland landed their fourth penalty to take a 12-10 lead before skipper David Havili stepped up to land an angled penalty, clinching the deal with 10 minutes to go.
Auckland opened the scoring through a long-range Harry Plummer penalty.
The Mako were dealt a cruel blow just 15 minutes in, losing Hunt to a nasty head knock, however Havili took over the goal kicking duties and levelled the scores.
Plummer reclaimed it for the hosts before fullback Zarn Sullivan struck one from 50 out to put his side six ahead.
However, another twist soon followed as Auckland captain Angus Ta’avao was sent to the bin as Tasman hammered away in the final minutes of the half.
The defending champions didn’t take long to cash in on the one-man advantage, scoring in trademark style after the siren.
Quinten MacDonald dotted down from a lineout drive as the Mako took the lead for the first time in the game.
Fetuli Paea was denied a try in the corner as the Mako came out of the sheds firing.
The drama continued as just before Ta’avau was set to re-enter the fray, Sullivan replaced him in the bin after a deliberate knockdown.
Both sides were putting in some monstrous hits as the Mako started to click with ball in hand.
Leicester Fainga’anuku was again a huge presence on the left wing, but it would be remiss to single out any particular Mako players from a team of heroes.
For rookie Mako Anton Segner, the trophies keep on coming.
Just his first year out of Nelson College where he won the Moascar Cup, UC Championship and South Island championship, Segner can now add national champion to his rugby resume.
“It’s a dream come true, still hasn’t set in, unreal experience, an unreal team and I couldn’t ask for a better way to start my professional career by winning a premiership.”
Segner says it was a tough watch from the sideline before the young flanker was thrown into to the cauldron at Eden Park.
“It felt like I was on the field, I was telling the boys to give it everything, it was tense, I wanted to be out there for the first bit but the boys set us up so all we had to do was finish it.”
He says it was an extremely physical affair in his time on the field and the feeling upon the final whistle was indescribable.
“I just started running everywhere probably had more energy then than during the game.”
Tasman 13 (MacDonald, tries, Havili 1 con, 2 pen)
Auckland 12 (Plummer 3 pen, Sullivan 1 pen)
Mako Anton Segner is congratulated by Murray Sturgeon. Photo: Jonty Dine ________________________________________