By Justin Miezenbeek
Te Awamutu Sports had set themselves up for a huge upset, but just couldn’t land the killer blow, seeing their first Premiership win slip slowly through their fingers in injury time, going down 23-26 in Waikato Premier Rugby to defending champs Hamilton Old Boys.
It was in inspired performance from the hosts, who were celebrating the 50th and Blazer match of lock Josh Reynolds, who continued his impressive season with another man of the match performance.
A slow start put Sports on the back foot early, letting in two soft early tries and after 10 minutes they were down 0-12 and already chasing the game. In previous games Sports have struggled to get themselves back, but this side has shown some real steel in the second round, and they struck straight back when Waylon Tangohau slipped a classy grubber through the line that was scooped up by centre Tairoa Crean, who shook the last defender to score.
The score gave Sports a new vigor and they went straight back on attack and were rewarded with a penalty goal to fullback Awa Morris.
The game evened out a little from there, with Old Boys extending the lead with another score. Sports slowly began to win the collision area and a period of attack was rewarded when they had sucked in the defenders then opened the ball up, skipper Matthew Towers evading the cover defense to cross in the corner and pull the score back to 13-19 at the half.
The score held for the first quarter of the second half until No.8 Kieran Westlake scooped the ball from the back of the twisting scrum and beat three defenders to cross, the successful conversion made it a one point game at 18-19.
The game wide open, Sports began to take control, the educated feet of pivot Thomas Bird pushing Old Boys back into their own half and forcing them to run out from their own quarter. Sports were relentless at the breakdown, forcing a number of turnovers and penalties which kept heaping the pressure on the visitors, finally taking the lead when midfielder Andrew Christie spun away from a defender to cross, the score now 23-19 with 10 minutes to go.
Old Boys desperately threw caution to the wind, but were held out by some outstanding scramble defence and controlled offence, seemingly sealing the match when Reynolds went over the line, only to be held up. Old Boys sensing it was now or never, attacked the scrum and won a messy tighthead with 3 minutes to go, then a penalty to clear their line.
They then kept the ball in hand, another penalty setting them up in the Sports quarter for the dying minutes, only to be held up with time almost up. Immense pressure from the ensuing scrum resulted in a penalty, with time up a scrum quickly signalled. Knowing it was their last roll of the dice, the fresh legs of the Old Boys scrum had Sports backpedalling, the result a penalty try to crush the hearts of the hosts, denying them a well deserved win.
Once the hurt of the loss subsides, Sports will find plenty of positives to take away, man of the match Reynolds held court over the lineouts to cap of another all round outstanding performance. Westlake showed again what an asset he has been with another tireless 80 minutes backed up by flanker Matthew Towers and lock Gelestino Kiutau who was all over the field. Midfielders Crean and Christie were strong in defence and attack while Birds tactical kicking was on point in the second half. Halfback Dan Babos marshalled the breakdown and played link between forwards and backs well.
Sports will have to dust themselves off quickly again, a date with unbeaten Hautapu in Cambridge looming on the horizon.