By Jim Birchall
A night to remember at Mt Smart on Friday as local club the Howick Hornets claimed their first Fox Memorial premiership since 2011, in a thrilling encounter with perennial favourites Mt Albert.
Fresh off winning Club of the year at the ARL awards evening; I visited the clubhouse at Paparoa Park just before the team was due to leave on the bus to the ground. Club captain Denie Allan was on hand to speak about the season and the road to the final.
The Hornets played eventual co-finalists the Mount Albert Lions in the first week play-offs, going down 4-18. The Lions advanced automatically to the grand final, but a lifeline was provided for Howick.
Having finished as minor premiers, they needed to win over West Auckland rivals the Glenora Bears to secure passage to Mt Smart.
“We beat Glenora 20-18 in the semi-final after scoring a try with three minutes to go” said Denie, and added “we scrambled really well” explaining that the Hornet’s desperation in defence sent them to the big dance.
The Hornets put out a young side this season, coached by Shaun Clark, and captained by hard-working dummy-half Jethro Friend. Friend, a former Warriors junior is the son of 1980s Kiwi half back Clayton Friend.
The club has seen considerable growth in its junior numbers, with teams from under six level upwards playing regular Saturday football. Girl’s teams are becoming increasingly popular as well, helped in part by the new buzz around the NRL women’s competition which opens up realistic pathways to professional sport.
After a team bonding session inside their Paparoa Park clubrooms where the mantra of self-belief and belief in your teammates were the buzzwords, the team embarked on their quest for glory at the home of rugby league.
An unfortunate incident where the scheduled team bus failed to arrive threatened to throw the players focus into the abyss but alternative transport was arranged, and the team departed just a few minutes later, closely followed behind by their loyal fan base known as ‘The Firm’.
As expected, the final was a titanic struggle between two closely matched sides. The Bookie’s favourite Mt Albert shot out to a 10 point lead midway into the second half. Rather than lay down and die, The Hornet’s showed huge resolve by dominating possession and metres gained in the last stanza, to draw 18-18 at the (penultimate) hooter.
Physically shot, both teams lined up for an extra 10 minute period to separate a winner from a game that had no losers. In the eighth minute of extra time, Jesse Albrett capped off a fine comeback from repeated shoulder injuries, by wrestling his way over the line on the back of a ropey pass at the end of a scrappy right side move.
It was not vintage -but it didn’t matter, The Hornets had given their all, and fully deserved to hold aloft the SAS Fox Memorial Shield for 2019.