After a seven year absence the prized trophy of the Auckland club rugby competition, the Gallaher Shield, has returned home to Western Springs stadium.
Superbly led by their captain Aleks Dabek, the young Ponsonby side masterfully constructed a clinical and assured performance when they defeated University at Eden Park on Saturday by 35-23. Ponsonby led by 17-13 at the halftime break, outscoring their opposites by four tries to three, coupled with another outstanding goal kicking display by John Cooper who personally contributed 20 points, and was successful with six from seven attempts at goal.
Saturday's match was the fitting finale to what has been a wonderful season for this team, and despite a couple of blemishes on this year's record they have played some remarkable rugby and collected all but one of the trophies in the Auckland club competition. Safely tucked away at Western Springs stadium until the 2019 season is the Waka Nathan Challenge Cup, the Alan McEvoy Memorial Shield and now the Gallaher Shield. And along the way this side collected the Tom Johns Memorial Cup, the Kohlase Cup, the Anton Begovich Cup and the Pita Fatialofa Memorial Cup, what is an impressive collection of silverware.
The Ponsonby club has now won the Auckland club competition on a record 46 occasions since it's inception in 1883, significantly more than the next side with 17 wins, University. Additionally Ponsonby now boasts 34 Gallaher Shield victories since 1922, the next rival being University with 14.
Every Ponsonby shield victory has been special, but this one in particular will be long remembered as one that featured passion, culture and commitment from a star team, and each player showed the desire to do the jersey and their team mates proud.
The game had all the ingredients that one would have expected from a finale, with both teams giving it their all. Ponsonby, led by their dynamic loose forward trio – Dabek, Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa, and man of the match Taina Fox-Matamua, were brutal on defence and dominant in the exchanges. The foundation for the victory was laid upfront which left the backline, directed by Rocky Khan, with quality ball for attacking options. Ponsonby dissected their opponents skilfully and with sheer precision. University have been one of the toughest offensive teams in this year’s competition and have caused havoc to the defence of many.
The blue and blacks started strongly and applied pressure to their opponents from the first lineout of the match. Jamie Lane stole a University feed on the halfway mark, and some excellent work by Freedom Vaha’akalo and Patrick Tausie freed Cooper to cross for the opening try.
University bounced back, aided by a series of penalties in their favour. Initially with a penalty goal from their halfback Brenton Helleur, then a try under the posts by lock Hamish Munro, which was converted by Helleur.
Ponsonby responded with a magnificent try soon after. Another University lineout steal by Lane saw the blue and blacks attack. The backs moved the ball across the field, initially to the right, and then back left. With the students unable to halt the Ponsonby move, Riedlinger-Kapa found a gap and raced to the line. The Cooper conversion put Ponsonby back in front at 14-10.
In the last ten minutes of the half Helleur goaled a handy penalty for his side, and almost straight away Cooper responded to for Ponsonby, seeing Ponsonby go to the break ahead at 17-13.
In the opening minutes of the second spell University set up camp close to the Ponsonby line, but the blue and black’s defence was resolute. A knock on by the students allowed Ponsonby to clear, but the touch finder did not achieve the desired result. University then found a way to the line, their flanker Angus Duckett crossing. The conversion was unsuccessful, but University had edged ahead at 18-17.
Ponsonby’s third try was scored from a magnificent Fox-Matamua break, creating a yawning gap in the University defensive line, freeing Riedlinger-Kapa to race to the line. Cooper again converted, the lead on the scoreboard returning to Ponsonby at 24-18.
The University restart failed to go the required ten metres. Ponsonby were awarded a penalty from the resulting scrum, the ball being kicked to touch. From the ensuing lineout Ponsonby attacked, only to have Lane halted in a dangerous tackle, to which the students were penalised. Cooper stepped up and goaled accordingly.
Cooper was a key contributor in Ponsonby’s fourth try, which was finished by replacement halfback Danny Tusitala in the right hand corner.
In the last ten minutes Ponsonby were powerless to prevent University’s number eight Uini Fetalaiga from scoring in the right hand corner, the try remaining unconverted.
Cooper put the icing on the cake with a 78th minute penalty goal, sealing the victory.
The euphoria and elation shown by the Ponsonby side at the final whistle was phenomenal, confirming how much this prized trophy and title means to the Ponsonby club.
Tries: Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa 2, John Cooper, Danny Tusitala
Conversions: John Cooper 3
Penalties: John Cooper 3