Even coach Darren Piri did not know when was the last time they were victorious. But on Saturday, the Panthers made sure this generation remembers them as the giants of local rugby after claiming the domestic rugby title.
The Panthers defeated Takuvaine Reds 34-23 in an exciting final at The Swamp in Avatiu.
The Panthers looked smart from the beginning and led 15-6 at the break, but the Reds were equally captivating with their blend of rugby which at times created havoc for the eventual winner.
The loss of Reds’ first five eighth Viiga Ruepena, who controlled their play, to injury in the final quarter of the match dashed their hopes for an famous comeback in the match.
The match saw plenty of good team tries being scored and it was the classy Panthers quartet led by fullback Rangi Piri supported by his fleet-footed outside backs of Tua Ravula, Kave Mocedike and Jovilisi Naqitawa that were the major difference. Their strong counter-attacking ability on the kick-return laid the foundation for the majority of the Panthers tries.
Despite a weak scrum, the Reds made it up in other areas and under the guidance of their outstanding halfback Fale Sooialo and Ruepena, the Vase Samania-coached side were able to stay in the contest.
Playing catch-up rugby did not help Red’s cause and surprisingly, it was their ill-discipline that resulted in two of their key players being sin binned at crucial moments of the match.
The defining moment in the match has to be the penalty try to the Panthers in the 60th minute which was awarded after a Reds player was deemed to have intentionally stood offside while the Panthers were hot on attack inside their 22 metre zone.
The penalty try gave the Panthers a comfortable 27-11 lead, making it seemingly impossible for the Reds to stage a comeback.
The Reds threw everything at the Panthers in that final quarter of the match and they played with plenty of heart, but it was the Panthers that prevailed in the end 34-23.
For the Reds, Ruepena, number eight Geoff Mangele and his loose forward partners Tautua Solomona and Tuku Samuel and also tough inside centre Logan Perenise were impressive.
Fullback Piri, number eight and captain Thomas Toa, sidestepping inside centre Ravula and loosened prop \Davey Mato, who anchored the scrum, were impressive for the Panthers.
The best and fairest awards given to the Reds strong running number eight Mangele and Panthers elusive fullback Piri.
Meanwhile the winning team did not get any trophy due to some logistic issues.
Tupapa Panthers 34 (Tries: Kave Mocedike (2), Oki Naea, Teina Savage and Penalty try. Conv: Othneil Joseph (2) and Jamian Iroa. Pen: Othneil Joseph) Takuvaine Reds 23 (Tries: Geoff Mangele, Stormel Ruatoe and John Penu. Conv: Perry Ioane. Pen: Viiga Ruepena).