A decade years after winning the Meads Cup, Ngāti Porou East Coast are finally making a return to Heartland championship semi-final action.
They will face Horowhenua-Kāpiti in Taitoko (Levin) tomorrow in a Lochore Cup semi-final. Their last taste of playoff football was in the nail-biting 29-27 win against Whanganui.
Midfielder Apirana Pewhairangi says the team is ready to once again represent the region.
"Koia te whāinga o tēnei kapa i te timatanga o te tau, kua tae mātou ki tēnei kēmu. Kei te tino hīkaka mātou te kapa, otirā te iwi whānui o Ngāti Porou."
(That was the goal for this year, and now we are here. We are excited as a team, but also as an iwi too.)
Since 2012 the country's smallest union has endured a rough period, including an eight-year-long losing streak which they snapped in style last year with a 50-26 win over Buller at home. They went on to win another three games.
Ngāti Porou are all set to give all that they have to make the Lochore Cup final.
Eighth on the ladder
They've backed that up with four wins in 2022, including winning the Bill Osborne Taonga from neighbour Poverty Bay, to finish eighth on the ladder, and now have a chance to reach the Lochore Cup final next weekend and finish the season effectively in fifth place.
Captain Sam Parkes says, "we don't get many semis, so the trick is to make the most of what we get. We certainly don't think next year is guaranteed, so we've got to make the most of now."
Former All Black Hosea Gear was appointed coach of the side in 2020, and he hoped to turn the fortunes of the team around. They've adopted the moniker "Kaupoai", a reference to the C Company of the 28 Māori Battallion that came from the East Coast. Pewhairangi, the former Paramatta and Warriors NRL player, says the connection to the C company has been the foundation for Gear's coaching style.
"Mai anō i te timatanga o te tau nā Hosea i whakatakoto te wero pēnei i o mātou pāpā, i kake ake ki Pt 209, e rua kē ngā hiwi, ko te tuatahi ko Hikurangi. Nā ki tō mātou titiro ko tēnei kēmu he pakanga mō te tihi o Hikurangi, hei tērā wiki ko te whiringa toa ko Pt. 209 tērā."
(At the start of the season he laid the challenge for us to be like our tūpuna who defended Pt 209, there were two hills in that battle, the first being Hikurangi. From our perspective, tomorrow is like the battle for Hikurangi, and next week is our 209.
Pt. 209 is a reference to the battle during World War II where members of the C Company attacked, and repelled the counter-attack of a Tunisian hill occupied by Nazi soldiers. Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross.
Halfback and captain Parkes is one of the few remaining members of the victorious 2012 squad still playing for the Coast. In his time, he's also experienced some of the lowest times the union has seen. But he is excited by where the union is heading at the moment.
"We built something last year, and this year we're catapulting and exploding forward into this campaign. The proof is in the pudding, the longer we have the systems in place with the coach that we have, we can get good results."
Gear, however, says the turnaround in a short while is a tribute to the mahi and dedication the players have put in themselves.
"This has been three years, or 10 years since they last were part of a finals series. So just to have the opportunity is awesome.
"For me, to watch their journey over the last few years has been pretty special."
While that's not a unique challenge among Heartland unions, Ngāti Porou East Coast has managed to reach the playoffs despite struggling to have full training sessions all season. And nothing has changed this week as they prepared for their biggest game in a decade.
"We had a zoom on Tuesday and we'll have a bit of a run around tonight [Thursday], obviously not with the full squad. If we're lucky, we might get at least one run in before Saturday's game collectively as a 23.
"Those are the trials and challenges that we face and it's always been like that, and probably always will be. It is what it is," Gear says.
Parkes says it is the reality of Ngāti Porou Rugby. "It's something that this team has had for the entirety of its history is that the boys can gel well, even though we come different hapū up the coast, or even come from different iwi with outsiders coming in. The boys always seem to gel well."
Pewhairangi, who is one of a handful of players who return to the Coast from outside of the region each week is hoping to see his fellow Ngāti Porou at Levin Domain this weekend.
"Ahakoa tō mātou maunga a Hikurangi ehara i te maunga nekeneke, engari Hikurangi tangata he tangata haere. Ko te tūmanako ka tae atu te iwi ki te tautoko atu hei te Hatarei."
(Although our maunga Hikurangi doesn't move, the people of Hikurangi move together. So we hope to see many of our supporters turn up to get behind us on Saturday.)
The two teams met in round 1 this season, at Whakarua Park in Ruatōrea, with Horowhenua-Kāpiti taking the win, 32-14.