By: Jared Smith
Jared Smith is sports editor of the Whanganui Chronicle
If you want to do well in the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship, you have to get points out of your away matches, but if you’re going to be Meads Cup champions, then you’ve got to show you can win the inter-island fixtures.
The sixth round on Saturday saw three of the four teams in the current Meads Cup group, including two of the joint table leaders, being able to do the business after their long flights and bus rides over to the other side of the Cook Strait.
But it was only just, following comebacks by the unfavoured home teams.
South Canterbury remain top of the table on differential from West Coast, after repelling a late charge from King Country to win 21-19 in Taupo.
It appeared the Cantabrians had matters well in hand at 14-0 by halftime, with try-scoring centre Shayne Anderson having the time and space to make an impact, scoring for the second game in a row, while flanker Siu Kakala also dotted down, both converted by prolific goal kicking halfback Willie Wright.
King Country scored first after halftime for 14-5 , but when second-five Joel Smith got the visitors third try, South Canterbury figured they would just continue their momentum to obtain the always-crucial bonus point.
Instead, a King Country team who are much better than their ninth place suggested, charged hard in the last 15 minutes to score two converted tries and only just miss a victory which would have kept them in touch with the Lochore Cup playoff group.
The visitors were counting the cost of their narrow win, as flanker and captain Nick Strachan suffered a knee injury, and his presence is vital over the next two weeks.
South Canterbury have perhaps the toughest finish to the round robin, with another North Island away game to Meads Cup champions Thames Valley, followed by current fellow table leaders West Coast in Timaru.
West Coast made the trek up to Whakarua Park in Ruatoria aiming for their 50th win in 14 seasons of Heartland rugby, while looking to hang onto the Arthur Wickes Memorial Trophy they have held since 2013.
Facing them was an East Coast team whose winless run is now reaching mythical status – coming into the match trying to avoid their 48th straight NPC defeat – figures that dwarfed the recently ended dry spell of the Southland Stags, who lost 27 games in a row from 2016 until this month with Counties.
And as it has been for three of their home matches this year, the streak came so close to being broken, as the men from Greymouth got out of town with a 21-19 win.
After a scoreless first quarter, West Coast opted for a series of penalty scrums, backing their superior technique in the pack to drive themselves over.
On their third attempt from 5m out, No 8 Amenatave Tukana took the ball off the back and feinted to halfback Jarrod Ferguson before stepping through to dive over, with fullback Sean McClure converting after 25 minutes.
With three minutes left in the half, East Coast got a penalty to go on attack from the lineout, although they would lose possession as West Coast kicked it back out to the 40m.
The athletic Epeli Lotawa, moved from the wing into second-five, steamed onto a pass and swept through three tacklers on his way to scoring in the corner for his second try in two games and fourth for the season.
East Coast then came back out roaring straight after the break to attack the tryline through multiple phases, with their import Taranaki flanker Mitchell Crosswell heading back to the middle and dragging two tacklers with him under the posts, halfback Sam Parkes having an easy conversion for 12-7.
Lotawa all but scored again after beating tackler, brought down just short, before the visitors forced a turnover after East Coast’s attack from the scrum feed.
The South Island side needed to compose themselves to get back to their basics, and again an attacking penalty let them set to drive over from the scrum, so when East Coast infringed, the referee ran straight to the posts for the automatic seven points in the 53rd minute.
With nine minutes left, it looked like West Coast had sealed it, as quick passes set reserve Joshua Tomlinson away to be brought down right on the corner flag tryline, with flanker Steven Soper immediately snatching up the ball to force it over the chalk – McClure adding a fine sideline conversion.
But after some helter-skelter play with basketball style offloads in all directions, East Coast ended up with an attacking lineout, and after a set play among the forwards, big prop Laman Davies pulled himself through the defensive screen and reached out to plant the ball, with Parkes punching the conversion through with a handful of minutes remaining.
East Coast then bravely ran the ball out of their half in search of a miracle, but lost ball and a penalty allowed the Coasters to pin them back in their own 30m to run out the clock.
The match had another milestone when well-travelled veteran reserve back Kahu Tamatea jogged on to a warm reception for what was his 100th first class game, a feat that has taken 19 years.
Tamatea played matches for Poverty Bay from 2000-2015, aside from spending his 2003 season with East Coast, and made a provincial comeback with the West Coast team this season after being part of the Grey Valley club.
The other joint table leader North Otago has hit the speed wobbles in their search to make the Meads Cup playoffs for the first time since 2013, as last week’s one-point loss to West Coast was followed by a too late comeback at home with Wanganui, who prevailed 27-22 in Oamaru.
Momentum between the old rivals has flip-flopped, as North Otago had been on a four match winning streak to start the campaign, while perennial title contenders Wanganui are now back in the Meads semifinal picture from sixth place after dropping their first three games.
In search of just their fourth win in ten NPC matches in Oamaru, Wanganui snapped straight into gear at Whitestone Contracting Stadium, working the combinations to open up gaps for standout halfback Lindsay Horrocks and flanker/captain Campbell Hart to score back-to-back tries for a 12-0 advantage after 15 minutes.
However, having come from behind all season with their 4-1 record, North Otago closed the gap to 12-10 over the next 12 minutes.
Accurate goal-kicking halfback Robbie Smith got them on the board with a penalty, and then winger Taina Tamou dove over in the corner after a nice cross-kick, with Smith again raising the flags from touch.
Reasserting their momentum, Wanganui did to their hosts what teams have been doing to them this campaign – scoring crucial points right before halftime.
Prop Wiremu Cottrell drove over in the corner in his comeback game from a sore AC joint, and while first-five Dane Whale was still having issues with the wider goal kicks, he added a penalty right on the break for 20-10.
When winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone scored his third try in two games, and fifth overall, Wanganui looked home and hosed at 27-10 entering the final quarter.
However, in very warm conditions and against a team who specialise in playing right to the 80th minute, the visitors gave up two more tries, the second right on fulltime.
North Otago’s veteran prop and current NZ Heartland XV player Ralph Darling scored, with former Heartland rep Lemi Masoe, who at 38-years-old was playing his 100th game for the province, adding a quick drop kick conversion.
Reserve Anthony Arty crashed over off the final play, which let North Otago sneak a bonus point and stay in the Meads Cup group for at least this week.
That point kept the Southerners ahead of both Wanganui and Wairarapa Bush, with the latter making a brilliant comeback in their inter-island game to upset Buller 20-17 in Westport’s Victoria Square.
Both Buller and Wairarapa Bush had been in the top four until last week’s losses to South Canterbury and Thames Valley saw them drop out, and the home side now have a tough row to hoe as they fell back to seventh place with a log jam above them.
Although the visitor’s led 7-5 approaching halftime, Buller’s second try took them to 12-7 at the break, an advantage they were still holding with 15 minutes left.
In a pulsating final quarter, with so much on the line for both sides, Wairarapa Bush took the lead 14-12, with nerveless veteran fullback Tim Priest keeping perfect kicking record as his conversions was followed by a penalty for 17-12.
Buller’s third try tied the scores with just five minutes left, but once again Priest stepped up to slot the match-winner and move his team up one spot into fifth place, ahead of Wanganui by virtue of owning a win over them in Week 1.
Standout winger Tristan Flutey scored in consecutive games to take his tally to five for the campaign, while reserve Brock Price also crossed the line.
Having been on the outer of the Meads Cup group themselves at different stages, Thames Valley are now coming on strong at exactly the right time, leapfrogging North Otago into third place with their second South Island trip being much more successful, beating a game Mid Canterbury 31-17 in Ashburton.
And it took a strong second half to do it as the hosts led 10-0 early through a try from their NZ Heartland XV flanker Seta Koroitamana, with second-five Tyler Blackburn adding the conversion and a penalty.
Knowing the game was a must-win the other Cantabrian team coming north next week, Thames Valley struck back with two converted tries by the 30th minute, the first under the posts, with both converted by first-five Reece Broughton as part of his 16-point haul.
Boughton’s penalty kick extended the lead after halftime, and then two more converted tries made the visitors safe at 31-10, with the home side getting a consolation try but no competition points in what is now becoming a disappointing season.
Thames Valley’s Auckland import winger Jason Laurich and flanker Laulea Mau both dotted down for the second match in a row, making it four tries for Mau this season, while second-five Harry Lafituanai and Broughton himself insured their team got the four-try bonus point.
Other standouts for a side that continues to track well, despite losing their captain and 2018 Heartland Player of Year Brett Ranga, were flanker Fred Kei and centre Sam ‘Guns’ McCahon.
And after their dynamic win over Mid Canterbury last week, it was back to the same old story for Poverty Bay, running up a four-try bonus point score, but still losing the match, as Horowhenua Kapiti weathered the storm in the second half for a 38-28 win.
Up 14-0 early and then 19-0 at halftime, the scoreline was looking down-right embarrassing for the visitors at 33-0 in the second stanza in Waikanae, as defending Lochore Cup champions Horowhenua-Kapiti were vowed and determined to get themselves back up into that group for 2019.
However, Poverty Bay started to play some rugby, aided by a penalty try for the ball being slapped down, and were in sight of Heartland’s greatest ever comeback at 33-28 with time remaining.
Regaining their sanity, the home side scored the last five pointer of the game to register their third win with a healthy dose of bonus points to move up into eighth spot ahead of travelling to Masterton to challenge Wairarapa Bush for the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup this coming weekend.
Results, Week 6.
West Coast 21 (Amenatave Tukana, Steven Soper tries; penalty try; Sean McClure 2 con)
bt East Coast 19 (Epeli Lotawa, Mitchell Crosswell, Laman Davies tries; Sam Parkes 2 con)
South Canterbury 21 (Shayne Anderson, Siu Kakala, Joel Smith tries; Willie Wright 3 con)
bt King Country 19 (Scorers not available)
Wanganui 27 (Lindsay Horrocks, Campbell Hart, Wiremu Cottrell, Vereniki Tikoisolomone tries; D Whale pen, 2 con)
bt North Otago 22 (Taina Tamou, Ralph Darling, Anthony Arty tries; Robbie Smith pen, con, Lemi Masoe con)
Wairarapa Bush 20 (Tristan Flutey, Brock Price tries; Tim Priest 2 pen, 2 con)
bt Buller 17 (Alex Paterson, Louis Devery, Mitieli Kaloudigibeci tries; James Lash 1 con)
HT: 12-7 Buller.
Thames Valley 31 (Jason Laurich, Harry Lafituanai, Laulea Mau, Reece Boughton tries; Boughton pen, 4 con)
bt Mid Canterbury 17 (Seta Koroitamana, unknown tries; Tyler Blackburn pen, 2 con)
Horowhenua-Kapiti bt Poverty Bay 38-28. HT: 19-0.