The sixth round of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship saw more twists than a barbed wire fence as there is now a completely rejigged top eight, separated on the table by only five points.
Only a rampant Wanganui, with their big 67-24 win over East Coast at Cooks Gardens, was able to defeat a team lower than them in the standings, as everyone else got tripped up, including North Otago losing their unbeaten tag to West Coast in Greymouth, 18-17.
One of two matches that kicked off earlier than the regular 2.30pm start, there would be no fairy-tale comeback North Otago this week, as the home fans at John Sturgeon Park witnessed yet another game that was not decided until the conclusion of a long injury time finale.
West Coast hooker and captain Troy Tauwhare opened the scoring with an unconverted try in the 10th minute, with the visitors reply swiftly coming eight minutes later through first-five Lachlan Kingan, although last weekend’s goal-kicking hero Robbie Smith could not add the extras.
It became a tit-for-tat exchange as West Coast swung into position right from the kickoff and lock Tumama Tu’ulua dotted down, second-five Sean McClure landing the first kick on a day where his boot would prove priceless.
Despite the quick shock, North Otago regathered themselves and got the equaliser in the 31st minute as fullback Patrick Pati ran in their second try.
The visitors kept it up straight after the halftime break as winger Taina Tamou reached the tryline for another unconverted try at 17-12.
McClure closed the gap to two points four minutes later, and then after such a steady exchange of scoring throughout the match, play would stalemate for nearly half an hour on a tense afternoon.
Finally, with five minutes left in regulation time, McClure had the penalty chance to put his team in front and he slotted it, with his three kicks in the game matching his output from last week in the loss to Wanganui, but this time with much more importance.
North Otago couldn’t get back in for a reply, now knowing how Thames Valley felt last weekend in Oamaru when they scored more tries but lost to a last-gasp kick.
The Swampfoxes weren’t down for long, as Thames Valley lifted themselves back up from seventh spot to fourth after holding off a Wairarapa Bush comeback to get home 29-23 at Paeroa Domain in the other early kickoff match.
Both sides traded early seven pointers, converted by home first-five Reece Broughton and the visiting Tim Priest, with the veteran first-five again showing his versatility as he switched to fullback after being a winger last week.
It kept raining tries early as Thames Valley were in again in the 16th minute, before play settled down and then Broughton would add a penalty in the 38th minute for 17-7 at the break.
Thames Valley’s third try for 22-10 in the 55th minute suggested they were starting to turn the screws, but Wairarapa Bush rapidly scored their second converted try and added a Priest penalty soon afterwards to close the gap to two points at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Much has been made of the Tufuga family having four brothers in the side, but it was another pair of siblings who made the score-sheet this week as winger Tristan Flutey got his fourth try of the season and then reserve Logan Flutey dotted down.
However, Thames Valley’s bonus point try which Broughton converted would decide the matter with just six minutes to go.
Those to raise five pointers for the home side included both wingers in Auckland import Jason Laurich and Kieran Lee, getting his third of the season.
Flanker Laulea Mau also scored his third try in the competition, while his loose forward partner Matty Axtens dotted down from No 8.
Wairarapa Bush got a penalty right on fulltime, and had to make that tough call found in modern rugby where you concede the game is gone, yet choose to take the kick option to at least guarantee a bonus point.
The loss still meant Wairarapa Bush fell out of the top four, as did Buller after they ran into a South Canterbury team continuing their tradition of hitting their peak at the midway point of the round robin, running up an important 38-27 win in Timaru to go top of the table on differential.
After play stagnated in their 13-13 draw with Mid Canterbury at a wet Ashburton last weekend, South Canterbury hit the ground running as centre Shane Anderson jinked through tacklers for the opener in just over 60 seconds.
Buller hit back six minutes later as talisman first-five James Lash fed second-five Michael Wells to score in the corner, yet the afternoon would prove a rare off-day with the boot for the proven match-winner Lash, making the first of what would be four missed conversions for tries he would set up.
South Canterbury backed themselves to run it out of their half as winger Brad Tunnicliffe got his first try and then goal kicking halfback Willie Wright was Johnny-on-the-spot to support fullback Zac Saunders and go behind the posts for 21-5.
Buller hit back when winger Mitieli Kaloudigibeci ran off a Lash pass to score for the second game in row since his recall, but South Canterbury would have their bonus point already when Tunnicliffe regained a chip kick to get his double.
Momentum then took another turn as Buller scored tries right before and after the halftime break to close the gap to 28-20, as winger Petala Saukuru also got back on the scoresheet for consecutive games after Lash took a quick tap and fired the long pass, then prop Jareth Mackay drove over following a good run from his first-five.
South Canterbury pulled away again at 33-20 when Saunders scored, but although Buller missed a try in the corner through going out in the in-goal area, they recovered and scored on the opposite side through fullback Robbie Malneek, and this time Lash added the conversion to close the gap to six points.
Wright missed a long range penalty to make his side safe, but in the 72nd minute the hosts grabbed what proved the match-winner as Saunders backed up Tunnicliffe’s dash to get his own double.
Preparing to face Mid Canterbury in Gisborne, Poverty Bay were trying to solve a problem – how to avoid narrowly losing their fourth straight game despite scoring 29-31 points each time?
The answer was simple, just score even more, as this time Poverty Bay pull too far ahead of their opposition in the final quarter to get home 52-38 and leapfrog Mid Canterbury into the current Lochore Cup group.
Lock and captain Ken Houkamau got them underway with the first try, converted by points-scoring machine fullback Andrew Ta’uatevalu, who was about to have another profitable afternoon.
The sides then traded seven pointers for 14-14 after 25 minutes, before Ta’uatevalu snatched an intercept to put his team back in front.
But a penalty to Mid Canterbury first-five Corey McKay, who also had a good day with the boot, was followed by an automatic seven points right on halftime for a penalty try to really hurt the home side, now trailing 24-19.
Nonetheless, they came back out strong as prop Toru Noanoa scored one of his two tries, before Mid Canterbury went under the posts to once again take the lead.
Poverty Bay needed something and Ta’uatevalu provided it, as he scored the corner and then nailed the sideline conversion for 33-31.
Just four minutes later, Ta’uatevalu had snatched another intercept and was off for his hat trick, as Poverty Bay felt the visitors cracking.
Flanker Quade Tapsell scored after following up from reserve Mario Counsell forcing a turnover from a Mid Canterbury scrum, and then Noanoa had his double to make the home team safe, even when they again conceded late points in the form of Mid Canterbury’s fifth converted try.
Dotting down for the visitors were No 8 and captain Jon Dampney for his third try this year, along with centre John McAtamney, halfback Will Mackenzie and reserve forward Matt Groom.
Another team to do themselves some justice after three weeks of disappointing results was Horowhenua-Kapiti, who were the only team to win on the road on Saturday after overcoming King Country 35-19 in their first Te Kuiti game.
The visitors, who in recent weeks have given three players to the NZ Defence Force squad playing in Japan, made some more changes including introducing another former Wanganui player in Manawatu’s Kameli Kuruyabaki, who played Meads Cup semifinals in 2016 and 2018.
Horowhenua Kapiti scored the opening try and would work their way to a 15-12 advantage before score again before halftime for an eight point buffer.
That advantage was swiftly gone as King Country got a seven pointer after the resumption to trail by just one, as Horowhenua-Kapiti were being asked if they had the temperament to hang on.
They answered emphatically with a bonus point try for 25-19, and then winger Himiona Henara, who contributed 18 points, put them back out of reach with his second penalty.
Another seven-pointer inside the last five minutes sealed the deal.
Henara and fullback Jono Ihaka both ended up with doubles, while reserve Pita Marshall also dotted down.
Falling from sixth to ninth on the points table, King Country’s tries came from winger Ratu Vasaki and Lisoni Tuivanavou, while they also received a seven point penalty try.
And Wanganui have not yet given up hope of another Meads Cup semifinals appearance as they will head south for a big game with North Otago this coming weekend, after getting the crucial bonus point and healthy differential in their 11-try win over East Coast.
Winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone charged into the backline off a lineout set play to open the home side’s account, and then fellow winger Tyler Rogers-Holden got the first of what is currently a season record four tries.
However, East Coast continued their never-say-die philosophy for running the ball from anywhere, including their own 22m, and got a try through winger Epeli Lotawa backing up former All Black Zac Guildford to regain a kickoff, which halfback Sam Parkes converted and then added a penalty for 12-10.
Wanganui reasserted themselves when prop Kamipeli Latu snatched up a spilled pass to run deep into East Coast territory for Rogers-Holden to eventually get a double, which rapidly became a hat trick when he again placed the ball in the corner after good buildup by the forwards.
But East Coast still wouldn’t go away, as Parkes finished off a great midfield bust and run by fullback Verdon Bartlett to go under the posts.
So far this season, Wanganui had given up points off the last play of the first half in every game, but this time they turned the tables as Auckland import No 8 Ezra Meleisia burrowed over beside the posts.
Flanker Jamie Hughes, having a great week after he was found not guilty of a high tackle by the NZRU judiciary and had his red card from the win over West Coast expunged from his record, scored from a quick tap early in the second half.
Deceptively quick reserve prop Raymond Salu wrong-footed the defence to get the first try of his double, then Tikoisolomone beat his man and placed the ball in the corner after strong buildup work from reserve hooker Roman Tutauha.
Salu was denied a try after he was ruled held up in goal, but only minutes later he again slipped defenders to dive over on the other side of the posts.
It looked like Samu Kubunavanua might be denied his try as well, but the touch judge confirmed the reserve flanker had reached out to plant the ball under the black dot before his arm was pulled back.
East Coast never stopped hunting for a bonus point of their own as prop Perrin Manual drove over in the corner after No 8 and captain Hone Haerewa had charged to the line, and then only a cruel final bounce on a chip kick prevented Lotawa getting a double.
Rogers-Holden then completed his quartet on fulltime after a backline spread which was started by first-five Dane Whale’s attacking breakout.
Results, Week 5
Thames Valley 29 (Laulea Mau, Jason Laurich, Kieran Lee, Matty Axtens tries; Reece Boughton pen, 3 con)
bt Wairarapa Bush 23 (Tristan Flutey, Logan Flutey tries; Tim Priest 3 pen, con, Tipene Haira con). HT: 17-7.
Wanganui 67 (Tyler Rogers-Holden 4, Vereniki Tikoisolomone 2, Raymond Salu 2, Ezra Meleisea, Jamie Hughes, Samu Kubunavanua tries; Dane Whale 3 con, Nick Harding 3 con)
bt East Coast 24 (Epeli Lotawa, Sam Parkes, Perrin Manuel tries; Parkes pen, 3 con). HT: 29-17.
West Coast 18 (Troy Tauwhare, Tumama Tu’ulua tries; Sean McClure con, 2 pen)
bt North Otago 17 (Lachlan Kingan, Patrick Pati, Taina Tamou tries; Robbie Smith con). HT: 12-12.
Horowhenua Kapiti 35 (Jono Ihaka 2, Himiona Henara 2, Pita Marshall tries; Henare 2 pen, con, Pakai Turia con)
bt King Country 19 (Lisoni Tuivanavou, Ratu Vasaki tries; penalty try; Evaan Reihana con). HT: 20-12.
Poverty Bay 52 (Andrew Tauatevalu 3, Toru Noanoa 2, Ken Houkamau, Rikki Terekia, Quade Tapsell tries; Tauatevalu 5 con; Kelvin Smith con)
bt Mid Canterbury 38 (John McAtamney, Jon Dampney, Will Mackenzie, Matt Groom tries; penalty try; Corey McKay 4 con, pen). HT: 24-19 Mid Canterbury.
South Canterbury 38 (Brad Tunnicliffe 2, Zac Saunders 2, Shane Anderson, Willie Wright tries; Wright 4 con)
bt Buller 27 (Michael Wells, Mitieli Kaloudigibeci, Petaia Saukuru, Jareth Mackay, Robbie Malneek tries; James Lash con ). HT: 28-15.
By: Jared Smith
Jared Smith is sports editor of the Whanganui Chronicle