Auckland and Tasman fight for provincial rugby dominance in Mitre 10 Cup final

Provincial rugby supremacy is on the line when Auckland face Tasman in the Mitre 10 Cup final on Saturday.

26th November, 2020

Auckland and Tasman fight for provincial rugby dominance in Mitre 10 Cup final

By Elijah Fa'afiu - elijah.fa'afiu@pmn.co.nz

Provincial rugby supremacy is on the line when Auckland face Tasman in the Mitre 10 Cup final on Saturday.

The Premiership final will take place at Eden Park, with the game free for the public to attend.

Auckland halfback Taufa Funaki says the match will be a big occasion for the team.

“I think it’s a huge privilege for any of us because a couple of months ago with Covid we wouldn’t be here right now. 

“Obviously it’s a grand final so through the week, the boys know the emotions are going to come, so we’ve been really trying to nail our detail but still trying to treat it as any other game.”

Tasman will be looking for their second consecutive Mitre 10 title, while Auckland are out to claim their second championship in three years after coming out on top in 2018.

“There’s a bit of history between us and them over the past couple of years so we’re definitely expecting them to come out firing but the boys are definitely prepping well and we don’t expect anything short of a hissing performance from them,” says Funaki.

The 20-year-old rookie halfback says it’s a privilege to be able to experience his first taste of Mitre 10 Cup rugby this year.

“A lot of the players I’ve been alongside with like Salesi Rayasi and Tanielu Tele'a - boys who’ve been around for a while, they’ve kind of taken me under their wing and I’ve learned a lot off them, especially around that professional side off the field, so yeah it’s been quite the journey.”

The two sides met earlier this season, with Auckland prevailing with a 31-10 victory.

However, Auckland winger Salesi Rayasi is expecting the Makos to come out firing in the final.

“I think they’ll be definitely more ready of course. They’ll be up for it in terms of their physicality, they’ll be coming up ready to fire so I think for us we just got to be ready to weather the storm and manage the momentum shifts when it does happen because it’s going to happen.”

Rayasi, who is contracted to the Hurricanes in Super Rugby, has been on a tear this season, leading the Mitre 10 Cup competition with 14 tries.

Auckland winger Salesi Rayasi in action against Tasman when the two provinces met earlier in the season. Photo/NZ Herald

As the 24-year-old reflects on this season, he says this year he’s become more self-aware in finding what he needs to do in order to perform better on a weekly basis.

“I’ve just understood what the coaching staff want for myself, what they expect as well and also what the players expect from my end of things. 

“What that looks like is nailing my role, how can I be more involved in the game. Not only that, coaches finding new challenges for me as well as keeping me engaged.”

Rayasi was a member of Auckland’s championship-winning team in 2018 and says this year, there’s been a bigger target on their backs compared to a couple of seasons ago.

“Comparing those seasons, 2018 was a bit different just due to us being more of a surprise to people. I think people didn’t realise or I don’t think they put us in that category of being in that top four or contending for a championship. 

“I think this year now, teams are more aware that we’re a championship-calibre kind of team and they’ve got more ammunition or fuel to try and beat us and try to tip us over.”

Auckland crowned champions for the 2018 Mitre 10 Cup competition. Photo/Auckland Rugby Twitter

The Auckland winger says the Covid-19 pandemic was also a difference-maker in 2020.

“The boys who were living in Auckland, we didn’t have a preseason so we had some obstacles and hula hoops, stuff that we had to get through to put ourselves in a position to contest for a championship.”

Rayasi will line up against Tasman wingers Leicester Fainga’anuku and Mark Telea.

Telea enjoyed a breakout season with the Blues in this year’s Super Rugby competition and says 2020 has been a learning experience for him. 

“On the field, I guess making the most of it, taking on more opportunities. You just get the ball and try and do what you can with it.

“Off the field, just enjoying the environment that you’re in and just embracing the culture and what everyone else brings to the team so it was good.”

The Tasman winger says the team has been well-prepared for this week’s final.

“The boys are excited for the challenge, heading up to Auckland so should be a good game on Saturday.

“We met them earlier on during the year. They have a really good kicking game, they put us back in our half and it was hard to get out. They’ve also got strong ball carriers.”

After representing North Harbour in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup competition, Telea says the transition to Tasman this season has been smooth for him.

“It’s a lot different to Auckland. No traffic so yeah it’s been all good. The boys made the transfer for me really easy. Everyone’s very welcoming here and there’s a lot of down time here. You can’t really explain it, you have to come here and experience it.”

Tasman winger Leicester Fainga'anuku scoring in last week's semi-final win over Bay of Plenty. Photo/Stuff

Telea’s teammate and fellow winger Leicester Fainga’anuku says the team will look to utilise their strengths against Auckland on Saturday.

“I guess mainly focusing on what we can bring to the final and knowing where our strengths are, where we can use it against the quality side that Auckland are.”

Despite scoring nine fewer tries than Auckland’s Salesi Rayasi this season, Fainga’anuku leads the competition in metres gained (890), and is second in clean breaks (24) and defenders beaten (51).

Fainga’anuku was a member of last year’s Mitre 10 Cup-winning Tasman side and says this year has seen a lot of young players step up.

“Last year, obviously had a lot of experienced players, a lot of Super Rugby boys and also a few All Blacks faces there so I think coming into this year, a lot has changed since then. 

“We’ve had to rely on a lot of younger boys coming through but at the same time I guess it’s a good platform for them to express themselves and put their names out there. 

“The likes of Sione Havili, who’s had to fill in for Shannon Frizell. He’s done an amazing job and we’ve got guys like that who have honestly stepped up this season. Where we are today, it’s all because of them.”

Tasman celebrating last year's Mitre 10 competition win. Photo/Tasman Makos

The destructive winger has had a big 2020 campaign, picking up 11 caps for the Crusaders in this year’s Super Rugby competition and appearing in the North vs South inter-island match a couple of months ago.

Fainga’anuku is hoping to bring a winner’s mentality to his younger teammates to help them prepare for Saturday’s clash.

“I know what it’s all about and what it takes to win titles and get your name engraved into those medals. 

“I think it’s just the whole mindset around finals footy for myself being able to pass it on to the inexperienced boys that haven’t really come into finals footy. Sometimes guys are a bit nervous but at the same time, trying to get it into them that it’s just another game, it’s nothing new.”

Before Saturday night’s Premiership final, Hawke’s Bay and Northland will meet in the Championship final tomorrow night. 

The winner will earn a promotion to join Auckland and Tasman in the Premiership division.