Above: The HOBM Eagles and Joe 'Apikotoa (second from left) lined up at the start of their McBain Shield clash with Petone earlier this year.
Joe 'Apikotoa is at a loss to explain why Hutt Old Boys Marist lost eight games in the Swindale Shield and ended up in the Hardham Cup.
"Lots of people were questioning our fitness and the quality of our subs, but I don't think it was any of those things at all. We lost a few close games and I think we were trying too hard to do the extraordinary instead of sticking to what we know well," 'Apikotoa theorises.
They started the season back in March by putting 64 points on Johnsonville, but that proved a false start to 2016 as everyone else would beat Johnsonville too. It was a 23-32 second round loss to Poneke that started the slide and bad first round losses to Wainuiomata, Oriental-Rongotai, Wellington and Tawa followed.
It was only 18 months previously that the Eagles were celebrating winning the bucqi Jubilee Cup and less than a year since they had won the Swindale Shield turn. Things can turnaround fast in Wellington club rugby.
Since making the drop the Eagles have won nine games in a row and will host Petone in the Hardham Cup decider at the Hutt Recreation Ground on Friday night. Both clubs agreed to switch the game from Porirua Park.
In the Swindale Shield meeting between the sides, Petone regained the McBain Shield with a last-minute 27-24 win. Willie Fine was the Villagers hero scoring a hat-trick. HOBM won the Hardham Cup round-robin meeting 43-31. The Eagles trailed 12-25 at halftime, but two tries to reserve lock Lui Luamanu and 23 points from Brandyn Laursen secured a hard fought victory.
"Games against Petone are always really close. The thing about Petone is you always have to be on your guard because they have the backs that can score from anywhere, anytime. Lester Maulolo, Losi Filipo and Piri Paraone can really hurt you," Apikotoa says.
The prop believes HOBM achieved something else significant when they beat Petone.
"It was the first time we really grinded out a victory. We clicked in the last ten minutes and were together. That was big for us to get a close victory.
Most of HOBM’s Hardham wins have been one-sided. They have scored 389 points in eight games and passed 50 points four times. Petone have scored 371 points, but dropped two games and required extra time to eliminate Northern United last Saturday.
'Apikotoa identifies several players who have stepped up in the second-half of the season.
"Brandyn Laursen has taken more control at first-five. In the first round we juggled our backs around a lot, but Brandyn has a strong voice and has became an effective game driver.Captain James O'Reilly is influential every week and Otto Rasch and Ope Peleseuma are key players."
'Apikotoa missed selection for the New Zealand Under-20's, but appeared in six games off the bench for the Wellington Lions in 2015. How does he feel about his own game?
"It's going okay, it's always easier when those around you are playing well. I want to improve my set-piece and tackle counts which are really important as a prop."
"I hope to get some game time for the Lions. I think we will have a good team, a mixture of youth and experience. In the front row guys like Asafo Aumua and Alex Fidow alongside Hurricanes Reg Goodes and Jeff Toomaga-Allen is a good balance to have," 'Apikotoa ends.
Snow is forecast in Wellington’s hill suburbs this Friday, but the rugby will heat up when the Eagles and the Villagers meet for the third time this season.
What: 2016 Hardham Cup Final
Who: Hutt Old Boys Marist v Petone
Where: Hutt Recreation Ground
When: Friday 5 August, kick-off 7.00pm.