Counties knocked over Otago in the final at Pukekohe last night. They have been the form team of the Championship division, and have played some sublime rugby under coach Tana Umaga. Most importantly, they are a team predominantly made up of locals who love playing together, and the enjoyment is evident in the way they play.
Considering where the union was a year ago, Otago has done remarkably well. Tony Brown has built a team of young players, and the union can look forward to a much brighter future. Otago was gallant in defeat, but there's no second prize in a gunfight.
Now attention turns to the match of the weekend; a replay of last season's Meads Cup final between Ngati Porou East Coast and the mighty Wanganui. This is the seventh time in seven seasons that Wanganui has made the Heartland Championship's marquee match, and the Butcher Boys are three times Meads Cup champions.
Wanganui was beaten by the Coast whanau a few weeks ago in Ruatoria in a match where they were well below their best. The side has struggled to hit top form all season, but over the last few years it has shown a remarkable ability to win the matches that matter.
Ngati Porou East Coast's renaissance has been fairytale stuff. A couple of seasons ago they were the easy-beats of the Heartland Championship. Long-time Wanganui sports writer JB Phillips opines:
There will be real pressure on Wanganui, the most successful union in the seven-year history of Heartland rugby, to beat Ngati Porou East Coast in Saturday's Meads Cup final in Ruatoria.
Steelform Wanganui, who beat Coast 30-10 in last year's final at Cooks Gardens, have won the Cup three times (2008, 10, 11) and finished runners-up three times (to Wairarapa-Bush in 2006 and to North Otago in 2007 and 2009).
East Coast came from rock bottom (12th) in 2010 to reach last season's final and have continued sound form this year to qualify top, on the strength of a 25-17 home win over Wanganui, and earn a first home national final.
There have been questions asked by quite a few Heartland unions, including Wanganui, regarding the eligibility of some members of the East Coast squad. The NZRU, however, is happy with the composition of the East Coast squad, unbeaten in Ruatoria in the past two seasons.
The Wanganui side will not be worried about eligibility or any fringe issues today. If they play to their potential, they should beat East Coast, despite the likelihood of a partisan home crowd. But win or lose, Wanganui is the team that has set the standard ever since the Heartland Championship was introduced in 2006.
The step from Heartland rugby to the ITM Cup is a huge gulf, and it's one that Wanganui cannot even contemplate, even if an opportunity arose. Instead, the Butcher Boys are the players by whom other Heartland teams benchmark themselves.
Kia kaha Wanganui; you will be manuhiri to the Ngati Porou iwi today; don't let that stop you winning a fourth Meads Cup!
UPDATE: Wanganui leads Ngati Porou East Coast 20 to three at half-time. It will take a huge reversal to prevent the Meads Cup returning to the River City for the fourth time in five years.