North Harbour, through the Birkenhead and Takapuna clubs, could, later this year with a little bit of luck, secure a rare double when the national inter-club sevens titles are decided, probably in Wellington in mid-November.
Birkenhead has qualified for the men’s play-off and Takapuna, for a second consecutive year, for the women’s. But what has made the 2021-22 interclub sevens title a little more challenging has been a more protracted qualifying process, largely caused by the pandemic disruptions.
As well as winning the centres' finals both Birkenhead and Takapuna had to go through regional play-offs, meaning that the Harbour clubs had to overcome clubs from Auckland, Northland and Far North. To decide the national winner each of them will be opposed only by five other regional winners.
Birkenhead will be up against Manurewa Cosmopolitan, Hastings, Paritutu (Taranaki), Elmwood Park (Canterbury) and Alexandra.
The Takapuna women, spearheaded by Black Jack Selina Goddard, will clash with Thames Coast, Martinborough, Naenae 00, Elmwood Park and Queenstown.
Evan Thomas, from the Birkenhead team, and Graham Dorreen, Takapuna’s manager-coach, believe that the highly competitive, arduous qualifying pathway has been great preparation for the national play-offs.
In Takapuna’s case it was especially hazardous, even allowing for its powerful line-up, which not only includes Goddard, but another Black Jack Wendy Jensen skipping the fours and multiple centre champions in Anne Dorreen and Lisa Dickson in the pairs.
But Takapuna only just beat Orewa and Mairangi Bay to become the Harbour champion, while its win in the regional play-off was more clear-cut: 3-0 wins over the Northland and Auckland clubs meaning it did not need to play its other opponent, from Far North.
But coach Dorreen points out the match against Northland’s Hikurangi, a team stacked with centre representatives, could easily have been a 3-0 loss. Goddard only won her singles 21-20, coming from a 13-1 deficit, the pairs won by only 16-15 and the fours by 14-12.
He and Thomas are both aware that all the opposition in the national play-offs will have been hardened by a similar, rigorous qualifying process. And spread across all the other finalists are some outstanding players, with both Elmwood Park teams looming as formidable hurdles.
The Elmwood Park women’s team has the Boyd sisters, Mandy and Angela, and two national champions in Bev Morel and Jan Shirley; the men’s team is just as endowed, with the likes of Gary Lawson, Kelvin Scott and Lance Pascoe.
The celebrated Taranaki club, Paritutu, includes a young player Daryl Reed who excelled in a recent, brief North Harbour stint. And Takapuna will have the utmost respect for Queenstown, especially two of its mainstays, Margaret O’Connor and Christine Buchanan, both close friends in particular of Anne Dorreen.
She played with both a few seasons ago in a composite four which came runner-up in the national championships.
Birkenhead’s depth is such it can’t find a place for Peter Nathan, who in the Harbour play-off filled in successfully in the singles for Tony Grantham who was away on Black Jack duty. Thomas and Daymon Pierson are the pairs line-up and Nigel Drew skips a four of Jack Huriwai, Marty Short and Mark Rumble.
Takapuna has one other advantage, a meaningful warm-up for six of its players. Goddard, Jensen, Dickson, Lauren Mills, Robyne Walker and Adele Ineson are in the Harbour representative squad which contests the national inter-centre final at Browns Bay in October.