Waikato kicked off their defence of the Ranfurly Shield with an 83-13 thrashing of Thames Valley at Paeroa Domain on Monday.
Hamilton Old Boys winger Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara scored a hat-trick on debut as Waikato racked up 13 tries to ease to a comfortable victory.
Chiefs prop Atu Moli and No 8 Whetu Douglas also grabbed a brace as Waikato were simply too quick, too strong and too good for the Swamp Foxes.
But the hosts fought to the bitter end in Paeroa and scored two tries themselves, courtesy of Brett Ranga and Jone Koroinsagana, to register their highest ever points total in a Ranfurly Shield game.
It was Valley’s 15th challenge since their first in 1951 against North Auckland, but Waikato condemned them to their second heaviest ever defeat in Shield encounters as they started their 10th reign with a young side that included 11 debutants.
Waikato’s backline included five making their first appearance in the red, yellow and black jersey, with young wingers Tavuyara and fellow debutant Sevu Reece really catching the eye with some terrific runs and excellent ball skills that were too cunning for the Swamp Foxes.
“It was good to see the young fellas get out there and get the ball in the hands,” said Waikato head coach Sean Botherway. “We learned a lot and all in all, we’re really happy.
“There was a fair bit of anxiety early on but we settled in well and we saw some good stuff. I was really pleased the boys played so positively.”
Paeroa’s home crowd huddled around the field and excitement lifted when Josh O’Flaherty kicked a long penalty to reduce the early arrears to 5-3, after Latu Talakai scored the game’s opening try for Waikato.
But the visitors gained the momentum and once they broke into their stride, there was no stopping Waikato’s youthful team as they cut loose.
Six more tries followed in the first half, with University first-five Jason Robertson kicking four conversions on debut to give Waikato a 43-3 half-time lead.
Tavuyara’s acrobatic finish in the corner got the ball rolling after early jitters, before Moli and Douglas scored their first tries after scooting clear of tacklers.
Melville flanker Jake Ale dotted down on debut unopposed before Tavuyara scored his second, and Robertson rounded off the scoring in the opening 40 with a try of his own.
Waikato’s handling and offloading saw them notch some brilliant tries that Valley could do little about, with the gulf in class reflected on the scoreboard.
And when Melville utility Reece scored straight after halftime, the floodgates appeared to have opened up again but the Swamp Foxes clawed their way back into the arm wrestle.
Captain Ranga reached out to the score their first try, with Waikato then hitting back courtesy of Hame Faiva’s effort as replacements and changes on the field saw the visitor’s dominance temporarily halted.
Irish halfback Isaac Boss came off the bench to make his first appearance in 10 years and became the seventh player to represent Waikato in three different decades.
But his first involvement was to throw an intercept pass to Valley’s centre Koroinsagana, who sprinted 90 metres to take the hosts total up to 13, much to the delight of jubilant home crowd.
Waikato then turned up the heat again with four tries in the final quarter, as Douglas, Tavuyara, Moli and Otorohanga flanker Murray Iti all touched down, with Fraser Tech first-five Matty Lansdown kicking three conversions on debut.
Tavuyara crowned his debut with a treble of tries and his representative career looks bright after impressing for Old Boys in club rugby this season.
“I’m just blessed that Waikato gave me an opportunity to play for them and showcase my talents,” said Tavuyara.
“I’m still exposing myself to this level and its a good experience to play for the Ranfurly Shield. I just used to watch it back home in Fiji.”
Waikato’s players will now return to club rugby with five regular rounds left, with the next Shield defence not until July 30, when they play King Country in Matamata.
Assuming they survive that, as they should, Waikato will then put it up for grabs against Wanganui in Cambridge on August 6, before the national provincial championship starts, where their first challenger will be North Harbour.
Waikato 83 (Tavuyara 3, Douglas 2, Moli 2, Talakai, Levien, Ale, Reece, Faiva, Iti tries; Robertson 6 con, Lansdown 3 con)
beat Thames Valley 13 (Ranga, Koroinsagana tries, O’Flaherty pen)