Above: Wainuiomata team, supporters and family members after their 21-20 semi-final win over Ories. PHOTO: Andy McArthur.
- By Adam Julian
When John Monu debuted for Wainuiomata in 2006, TJ Va’a was a ball kid retrieving kicks from a pivot trying to lift the green and blacks out of obscurity.
Wainuiomata was rooted in the Senior One [Premier Reserve] Harper Lock Shield and the small community was very much a league dominated one.
Thirteen years later Monu and Va’a look likely to play together in the Jubilee Cup final, with Va’a starting games at halfback and last week moving into first five-eighth and Monu shifting into the centres.
Va’a has endured a horrific run of injuries, contracted to the Hurricanes for three years without playing an official Super Rugby match. The tribulations of the youngster are challenges Monu can relate to.
“I remember watching TJ play as a kid and showing skills as good as an adult,” Monu recalls.
“Unfortunately he’s had a lot of injuries which set him back. He needs time to build his confidence and he’ll be right back on top.”
A decade ago Monu was a promising midfielder, but stiff competition from other midfielders led by local All Blacks duo Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith saw Monu venture overseas for four seasons.
“I played a year in Scotland and three for the Gold Coast Breakers. The competition in Australia was tough because it was only a level below Super Rugby. It made me a better player,” Monu reflects.
In 2014 Monu made his 100th appearance for Wainuiomata when they defeated Marist St Pats 26-13 to make their first Jubilee Cup final. The hype of making the big dance proved somewhat overwhelming as Wainuiomata narrowly stumbled at the last hurdle; beaten 14-11 by Hutt Old Boys Marist.
“It was great to make the final, we were really competitive, but on reflection there was too much outside noise. We had media, dinners and fundraisers. We needed to concentrate on ourselves more,” Monu rues.
That momentous Sunday, Wainuiomata was without a rampant Ben Tupuola. The giant No.8 chose to observe a religious sabbath, a pivotal absence for the runners up. Tupuola and Monu are among several players in the present roster who’ve earned a second crack at glory.
“Ben is a really inspiring guy. Religion helped Ben turn his life around,” Monu explains.
“He was from a rough part of South Auckland when he came to us and caused a bit of mischief. He actually got banned from the clubrooms. We’ve all grown up. Our experience has helped this season.”
In 2018, Wainuiomata appeared to be too old. Regulated to the Hardham Cup for the first time since 2010, they were beaten 27-26 in the decider by Petone.
In all grades this season, Norths have four teams in the finals and have won 49 games. By contrast Wainuiomata have a solitary finalist and have won 20 games with 12 of those victories secured by the premiers. Despite a shortage of depth, Monu was convinced Wainuiomata had the goods.
“If we could get everyone on the same page I knew we had the talent to go far. We were our own worst enemies last year. We’ve been lucky this season to have a couple of Japanese imports and young guys step up.”
Wainuiomata won a record seven games in a row to sit top of the Jubilee Cup pile after a month. In the penultimate round of the Swindale Shield they toppled reigning champions Old Boys University 23-21 to effectively eliminate the students into the bottom seven.
A stumble against Petone was followed by a horror show against Tawa, a performance so bad it demoted Wainuiomata to fifth with Swindale Shield champions Hutt Old Boys Marist, needing victory, awaiting in the last Jubilee round.
“What happened to us in that game?” A beliwildered Monu asks of the Tawa setback.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but it was definitely a turning point. We got really desperate.”
The Eagles’ flight ended at William Jones Park, Wainuiomata prevailing with a bonus point 28-19 win.
Ories was the next giant to fall. The Andy Leslie Cup holders were pipped 21-20 in the semi-final.
“We were the better team,” Monu insists.
“It was an arm-wrestle, but we had more energy on defence. In the past we’ve let those games go, but I felt the boys were composed on Saturday.”
Wainuiomata showed composure in their previous fixture against Norths, overturning a halftime deficit to win 24-22. Monu is anticipating a similar scoreline this weekend.
“It was physical. This weekend is definitely going to hurt. When I look at the teams on paper, we’re pretty even. It will come down to who wants it most on the day.”
Monu will be supported keenly by three children and his colleagues in the construction industry.
The Jubilee Cup final between Wainuiomata and Norths kicks off at 2:30pm on Saturday at the Petone Rec.