Maheno gloriously transformed

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There really are no words.
How can one adequately describe the scenes at the end of this final as Maheno scored the winning try in the final seconds of extra time in one of the greatest North Otago rugby games?
And how can justice truly be done to the transformation of Maheno – a classic country club whose fortunes ebb and flow along with the local rural community – from wooden spooner to champion in just 12 months?
This was simply a classic, an extra-time thriller that featured basically everything you could ask for in a game of grassroots rugby.
It had Maheno, out-muscled but bursting with passion and commitment, dictating terms for 60 minutes, leading 12-0 through four Craig Smith penalties with a quarter to play and seemingly cruising to victory.
It had Old Boys roaring back with two quick tries, Chris Jennings coolly slotting a drop goal to put Maheno back in charge, and Old Boys captain Ralph Darling burrowing over to make it 15-15 at the final whistle.
But that was just the beginning. What came next was 20 minutes of incredible scenes.
Old Boys winger Una Ofa scored a chip-and-chase try just 90sec into extra time, before Smith replied with his fifth penalty.
Replacement back Palavi Tahaafe scored Old Boys’ fifth try – it was hard not to feel for Inoke Naufahu as he missed his fifth straight conversion – and the defending champions appeared to have the whip hand at 25-18 nearing the break in extra time.
Maheno, though, wasn’t having it.
Lachie Kingan, an under-rated member of the green-and-black backline, scored right on the first whistle, and Smith’s conversion made it 25-25.
As the gloom descended and the 2000-plus crowd chanted and whacked drums and yelled, two brave teams dug deep for the last ounce of energy near the end of a rare 100-minute game, and it seemed we were destined for a stalemate – and that would have meant Old Boys claiming the shield by virtue
of having scored more tries in the game.
Then it happened.
A Kingan break led to Maheno winger Adam Johnson getting a sniff of daylight 35m from the line. He took off like a startled rabbit, ploughed past two defenders and flew over in the corner.
You can’t “go upstairs” at this level so it was left to assistant referee Craig Kingan to make the call. And as soon as he nodded, there was pandemonium as Maheno exploded with joy at winning the Citizens Shield for the first time since 2001.
Maheno coach Mark Wilson appeared to be the calmest man in the stadium as the bedlam subsided, and while he claimed his heart was still racing, he never doubted his men could finish the job.
“I was reasonably confident when I saw how we finished the first part of extra time, and we had the momentum going into the second part,” Wilson said.
“I felt it was a matter of time before we were going to score, but we were playing against a champion side that has been here for a long time and knows how to win.”
Wilson coached Old Boys through a successful period before joining Maheno last year, but said there was no extra sweetness at dethroning his former team.
“It’s about Maheno, and about these boys and what we can achieve with them.
“It’s a magnificent Old Boys side, but this was about us starting something two years ago and finishing with a shield in the cabinet.”
Maheno, which lost an extra-time final to Valley in 2005, could manage just one win in 2015, and not even Wilson could have dreamed the club would make such rapid progress.
“Absolutely, I’m not going to lie. We thought making top four would be huge for us. To win it is over and above all expectations.
“It’s a special group of guys. They had to learn to believe, and learn to win. Today showed they had that belief.”
Old Boys could hold their heads high after their valiant effort at winning a sixth straight title fell agonisingly short.
Captain Ralph Darling praised Maheno for being able to do what no other team had managed since 2010.
“They just kept coming at us. Every ruck was ferocious and they threw everything they had at us,” Darling said.
“We gave it our best but we weren’t good enough, and Maheno deserved it.”
It has been a phenomenal era for the Old Boys club, but Darling is not calling it over just yet.
“I’m proud of the boys. A lot of them have been here right through.
“A couple of guys are 34-35, but the majority of us will be back. We just need to get a bit of that hunger back. Maheno fired bullets at us today and we were a bit stand-offish at times.”

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