A final of epic proportions White Star 37-37 Westport

A final of epic proportions

A huge crowd at George Craddock Memorial Park witnessed one of the all-time great Senior club finals on Saturday as White Star and Westport turned it on in 100 minutes of scintillating rugby. Twice, Westport skipper Andrew Norton-Taylor scored to bring his side back to parity, first, in the dying moments of regulation time to force extra-time and then again as time expired in overtime securing the 37-37 draw.

It was White Star who got out of the blocks early in the game as winger Iliesa Tora crashed over inside the first 2 minutes after White Star showed their positive intention moving the ball from side to side. Sam Jope was able to convert and then add a penalty not long after to secure a handy 10 nil lead. White Star were getting early gains with their attack through the strong carries from impressive number 8 Gabba De Kock and bulldozing hooker Anthony Ellis.

Westport were able to work their way back into the fixture during the middle stages of the first half by getting some much-needed possession. Their loose forward trio of Kahu Parata, Kyle Te Tai and Sam Godwin were effective at the breakdown, and it was Parata in particular who won a couple of crucial penalties to wrest the initiative off White Star. From the ball they were able to earn, Westport put together multiple phases but were finding it tough to breach the stoic White Star defence. Westport went 24 phases in one movement, attacking both edges and showing great patience but the Star defence was sound, led extremely well by Dylan Rusbatch, Luke Watson and Alan Paterson.  Westport settled with a penalty goal to open their account for the afternoon but were further rewarded shortly after as midfielder Logan Heath burrowed over from close range adjacent to the posts, with Norton-Taylor adding the extras to bring the final level at 10 a piece with 5 minutes remaining in the first half.

The set-piece battle was intensifying as both sides challenged each other’s lineout with some success. The scrum battle was fierce with neither tight five giving an inch. As time was expiring in the first half, it was White Star who managed to get their noses in front when lock Rowan Neilsen found himself in space down the left-hand flank to race 25 metres to score and give his side a 15-10 lead. White Star would have been relieved to take the lead into the break but the loss of Ellis to the sinbin meant they would be under pressure to start the second half.

The injury toll from the first half had well and truly taken its toll, particularly on White Star as late replacement, the evergreen Buller Rugby legend Phil Beveridge, limped from the field, along with team-mates, Rusbatch and Forsyth whilst Watson was receiving treatment on a regular basis.

It was indeed Westport who seemed to get up on the foils early in the second spell as speedy replacement winger Daniel Beveridge scored in the corner before Godwin scored an acrobatic try by pivoting and reaching out with the ball in one hand to dot the ball on the try line. All of a sudden, the momentum was well and truly with Westport leading 20-15. The return of Ellis certainly aided the White Star side as the game continued to be played at a frenetic pace with both sides willing to move the ball from anywhere on the park.

Both lineouts began to settle down and were becoming good attacking platforms. Westport were getting quality ball from the back through Glen Martin while White Star were using Watson and Paterson to great effect. When White Star prop Sean Eggers finished off a try from a rolling maul, scores were level again. White Star were using their ruck and run tactic to great use and managed to capture Westport offside. When Mitieli Kaloudigibeci was caught offside one too many times, he was sent to the bin. White Star then capitalized, and it was his Fijian counterpart Tora who scored a quick brace of tries to take Star’s to a 30-20 lead with just 6 minutes remaining. The return of Kaloudigibeci and loss of De Kock to injury coincided with another swing of momentum, this time to Westport as Norton-Taylor opted to take a penalty goal to reduce the margin to 7 points with three minutes left on the clock. Westport were able to quickly find themselves in an attacking position and it was that man Norton-Taylor who led the way with his signature show and go play to crash over next to the posts and convert to level the scores at 30-30 and send the game into overtime.

The players had to regather their thoughts and breath quickly as 10 minutes each way was added to the clock. Both benches were well utilized through either injuries or fresh legs required as the running rugby continued to take centre-stage. White Star were the first to score in the first period as skipper Alex Paterson received a lovely inside ball from Jope on halfway to then show a clean pair of heels and dash through under the posts, much to the delight of the very passionate White Star supporters. And then, as he had done during regulation time, Norton-Taylor produced some magic and showed his class to break tackles and crash over to score in the dying minutes to level the final at 37-37 and share the Senior Shield title for 2021.

 At the final whistle there was a range of emotions from both sides. Relief the game was finally over, despair and joy. Ultimately, the players deserved to be extremely proud of their effort and contribution to a heck of an afternoon of footy. A climatic end to a tremendous day’s work that had the crowd on edge from kick-off to finish.

For White Star coach Callum Lennon, he was delighted with the effort of his young side “I thought our young guys handled the pressure of a final extremely well, particularly after losing a player in the warm-up and then the experience of Phil early on. The game could have gone either way but for our guys to play the way they did for 100 minutes and be right in the hunt was extremely satisfying”. Lennon added it was hard to single any players out because everyone had played so well “but I thought Jack Reedy playing in his first final was outstanding as was Ethan Slee who was put under a lot of pressure, and he couldn’t have handled it any better. Extremely proud of 1-22 and we know we will all come back better next year for another crack”.

For Westport, their coach Craig Adams reflected on their journey to the final after sustaining season-long injuries to key personnel “I was extremely impressed with how the team managed to play in the final after the disruption the injuries had taken on the side. We were down, and potentially out, on several occasions and somehow found a way to come back. I was really proud of the character and composure, as that is something that, historically, we have not had”. He paid special mention to his leaders and said “Andrew Norton-Taylor deserves a huge amount of credit for his option taking, game management and execution”.

The fixture was handled extremely well by the three match officials. Referee Phil Grafton allowed a free-flowing game to play out and should be commended on his contribution to what was simply an outstanding Senior Shield final.

2021 saw only the 3rd time the title was shared , Westport and White Star fought out enthralling a 37-37  draw after extra time to share the 2021 title, the previous times were 1990 (Westport AND Ngakawau) and in 1974 (United AND Ngakawau)

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