Counties Manukau Stingrays are the 2015 national champions, carving out a resounding 41-10 victory over defending champs Canterbury Bulls in the NZRL Premiership final at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday.
The Stingrays created history by winning their maiden title, washing away the disappointment of 2014 when they were disqualified from competing in the final due to fielding ineligible players during the season.
An extremely satisfied Counties Manukau coach Rod Ratu said gaining redemption played a big part in his dominant side’s build-up to the decider.
“It feels great, especially for the boys – particularly the ones that were there last year,” said Ratu, who is also one of the Vodafone Warriors development coaches.
“We were in that space last year leading into the final, so this year was about retribution and setting that straight.”
The Stingrays scored seven tries to two, but it their relentless drive in defence and attention to key effort areas such as kick chase that underpinned the win.
The Stingrays struck first after just five minutes on the back of a superb 40/20 by Vodafone Warriors NSW Cup halfback Raymond Talimalie. Three plays after the scrum win, giant prop Saipani Aiolupo brushed off three defenders to power over for his seventh try of the season and an early 6-0 lead.
The frantic first quarter of the match was marked by enterprising second-phase attack and brutal hits, but desperate scrambling defence and untimely errors prevented any addition to the scoreboard.
The Bulls broke the impasse in the 21st minute when a slick short-side play put Danny Latu into space down the sideline. The nuggetty winger stepped inside Stingrays fullback George Edwards to finish off the 50-metre movement. James Baxendale’s conversion from out wide cannoned into the upright, leaving the visitors two points adrift.
Counties Manukau hit back 12 minutes before halftime through winger Reece Charlie, who backed up a bust by second-rower King Vuniyawa and beat a horde of Bulls defenders to dot down in the corner.
Stingrays captain Edwards landed a vital blow at the 35-minute mark, slicing through from close range to set up a 12-point advantage. But the minor premiers weren’t finished, with Kuniyawa reeling off a massive hit to force the ball loose from Bulls winger Jack Mundy, before second-row partner Sione Fe'ao brushed off some tired defence to score on the stroke of halftime.
Vodafone Junior Warrior Mikaere Beattie’s third successful goal sent the Stingrays into the sheds with an imposing 22-4 lead.
The Bulls hopes of climbing back into the contest received a blow with a handling error in the first set after the resumption. Fe'ao found a hole to stroll over for his second try during the Stingrays’ ensuing possession.
It got worse for the defending premiers when fullback Erwin Sauni – so brilliant for the Bulls all season – coughed up a regulation high ball minutes later. Although the Bulls’ goal-line defence held firm, Beattie effectively put the result beyond doubt by snapping a field goal for a 29-4 lead.
A hot-stepping solo try by halfback Tevin Arona gave Canterbury a glimmer of hope at 29-10 with 24 minutes on the clock, but they were unable to turn the breakthrough into any tangible momentum as the Stingrays’ bruising defence and astute kicking game came to the fore.
Stingrays lock Joseph Price - another current Vodafone Junior Warriors player - produced arguably the highlight of the afternoon in the 68th minute, leaving a slew of Bulls defenders in his wake in an extraordinary run to the try-line. Winger Johny Henry sealed the huge win in emphatic style by racing away for a 70-metre intercept inside the final two minutes of the decider.
The Counties Manukau squad was jubilant after the fulltime hooter sounded, elated with a victory that they felt was 12 months in the making. Vuniyawa was a popular man-of-the-match after a dynamic performance on both sides of the ball.
Ratu also praised his team for producing an outstanding all-round display when it mattered most.
“The boys built on that through the season and peaked at the right the time. We tried to get as close a complete 80-minute performance as we could,” the mild-mannered coach said.
“Our preparation this week did have a defensive focus. The boys are all just natural footballers and so it was just about making sure the work was done off the ball, particularly in defence.
“(Our message) was just to get out there and enjoy yourselves.”
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Counties Manukau Stingrays 41 (Sione Fe'ao 2, Saipani Aiolupo, Reece Charlie, George Edwards, Joseph Price, Johny Henry tries; Mikaere Beattie 6 goals; Mikaere Beattie field goal).
Canterbury Bulls 10 (Danny Latu, Tevin Arona tries; James Baxendale goal).
2015 NZRL NATIONAL PREMIERSHIP MERIT TEAM
1 George Edwards (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
2 Joseph Oti (Wellington Orcas)
3 Matt Sauni (Canterbury Bulls)
4 Simione Ma’amaloa (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
5 Andrew Tusiane (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
6 Tevin Arona (Canterbury Bulls)
7 Ray Talimalie (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
8 Saipani Aiolupo (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
9 Kruz Tupo (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
10 Chris Bamford (Canterbury Bulls)
11 Sione Fe'ao (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
12 James Baxendale (Canterbury Bulls)
13 Nick Read (Wai-Coa-Bay Stallions)
14 Uila Aiolupo (Counties Manukau Stingrays)
15 Eli George (Northern Swords)
16 Erwin Sauni (Canterbury Bulls)
17 Jeremy Siulepa (Wai-Coa-Bay Stallions)