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Both Heartland Championship table leaders upset in penultimate round

It wasn’t a New York minute, more of a honest country 80, but everything has changed on the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship points table, after South Canterbury and West Coast went from joint leaders to falling right out of the Meads Cup group with losses on Saturday.

The penultimate round of the regular season was always going to be a spirited affair, not just because of the prospect of drastic changes in the congested standings, but the fact several prestigious inter-union trophies were on the line in derby games across both islands.

One game where there was no challenge trophy, but the stakes were the highest, was South Canterbury facing another tough inter-island trip to Paeroa Domain to face third-placed Thames Valley, and the home side came from 21-7 down just after halftime to snatch a 28-24 thriller.

Despite a bonus point, South Canterbury saw all the teams sitting third to sixth leapfrog them into the Meads Cup group, as they are now tied with a resurgent Wanganui for the last spot, but outside the top four courtesy of 23 points less on differential.

While Thames Valley are the defending Meads Cup champions, being head of the pack at this stage is a new experience for the Waikato country side – as they upset the odds in 2018 by winning their first Heartland trophy from distant fourth.

It was a horror start for South Canterbury as they lost No 8 Siu Kakala to the sinbin in the fourth minute, and Thames Valley immediately exploited it as fullback Regan Crosland scored, converted by first-five Reece Broughton.

The visitors then weathered the rest of Kakala’s sentence, and also the loss of their talented midfielder Shayne Anderson to injury, and began to turn the screws, being rewarded with a penalty try in the 20th minute.

It was the ninth automatic seven pointer awarded in the seven rounds of Heartland rugby this year.

South Canterbury then hit Thames Valley hard with tries on either side of halftime through flanker Cam Russell, playing for injured skipper Nick Strachan, and winger Clarence Moli, his fourth try this campaign, with halfback Willie Wright converting both.

Knowing they were in danger of losing their Meads spot, Thames Valley fought back through their breakout star Laulea Mau, as the flanker scored for the third game in a row and his fifth try of the season since coming off the bench in Week 2 against Wanganui.

Boughton converted and added a penalty four minutes later for 21-17, before South Canterbury replied with first-five Miles Medlicott adding three points to put them further clear.

But just like they did in away games against Wanganui and Wairarapa Bush, Thames Valley proved themselves a team for the fourth quarter, as after centre Harry Lafituanai scored for the second consecutive match, Boughton repeated his Wanganui efforts by slotting clutch three pointers in the 61st and 66th minute to put themselves more than a kick ahead.

South Canterbury would rue the three try-scoring opportunities they missed in the game, and find themselves in must-win-with-bonus next week at home to West Coast if they want to make the Meads Cup playoffs for the fifth straight year.

The wheels well and truly fell off for West Coast at Greymouth’s John Sturgeon Park, as a triumphant Buller took the Rundle Cup back up the road to Westport after a 47-7 smashing.

Established in 1911, the Rundle Cup is the oldest active inter-union trophy in New Zealand rugby, and second oldest to only the Ranfurly Shield for all provincial prizes.

The intense rivals treat their annual derby dead seriously, as Buller arranged complimentary buses for their supporters from Westport, while West Coast threw open the gates free of charge to encourage their fans.

But only one team turned up on the field, as Buller led 13-0 after 15 minutes, and then scored vital points before halftime with another penalty and a converted try for a comfortable 23-0 lead.

A yellow card in the game would not help the home side either, but Buller had no sympathy for their neighbours, blowing out to 33-0 before the West Coast replied with a converted try to flanker Steve Soper.

Buller then reasserted themselves with two more converted tries for the most one-sided scoreline in Rundle Cup since Buller won 48-0 in Westport during their excellent 2016 season.

After disappointing returns with the boot in the last two games, first-five James Lash was back to his brilliant best, converting four of the five tries, of which he personally scored two, and adding three penalties.

Lash’s 27 point haul saw him break the all-time scoring record for the Buller Rugby Union, having reached 580 points for the red and blues.

Also dotting down were fullback Robbie Malneek and winger Alex Paterson for their fourth tries this season, along with prop Jareth Mackay and lock Isei Lewaqai.

The result left the two sides as table neighbours as well in fifth and sixth, with both likewise still having an outside chance at the Meads Cup group next week, but needing a lot of upsets to go their way.

After a shaky fortnight with two narrow defeats which threatened to see them drop out of the Meads group, North Otago have reasserted their championship aspirations and have locked the prestigious Hanan Shield away for the summer after a comfortable 34-10 win over Mid Canterbury in Oamaru.

Sitting 11th with no chance remaining of making the top eight, the former two-time Meads Cup champions and one-time Lochore Cup winners Mid Canterbury are destined for their worst season in the 14 years of Heartland.

Looking to defend the shield they took off South Canterbury in the opening game, North Otago scored five tries in the opening stanza, and it was their game centenarians who were leading the way.

Having played his 100th match for the union last weekend, centre Lemi Masoe scored, while veteran prop Ralph Darling scored for the second week in a row after good buildup in the pack to make it 15-3 at that stage.

Prior to that, flanker Marcus Balchin had intercepted the ball right on Mid Canterbury’s line to walk in for the simplest five pointer he’ll ever get.

Jake Greenslade went off the back of an attacking scrum for the bonus point try, and then prop Meli Kolinisau scored right on halftime with halfback Robbie Smith finally able to add a conversion for 27-3.

The visitors sole points of the opening stanza came from a penalty by first-five Corey McKay.

While the damage was done, it was a more even second half, as Darling scored again to make it four tries for the season, before Mid Canterbury replied with a runaway try to flanker Kody Nordqvist.

North Otago will now want to consolidate a home semifinal for the Meads Cup when they travel to Ruatoria to play winless East Coast, who for the second year in a row were devastated to have a drought-breaking victory snatched away from them at the last gasp by their cousins Poverty Bay, 24-20 in Gisborne for the Anaru Skip Paenga Memorial.

After duelling hakas that left both sides staring eyeball to eyeball, Poverty Bay struck first after they put the ball through the hands and lock Gabe Te Kani powered his way to the tryline, with winger Matt Raleigh getting the ruck pass and stepping through to score.

East Coast hit back straight from the kickoff as they worked towards the posts, then flanker Mitchell Crosswell threw a basketball style pass wide to fellow flanker Trent Profit, who falling in the tackle popped a great offload inside for lock and captain Hone Haerewa to tie the scores 5-5 after halfback Sam Parkes hit the post with his conversion.

East Coast were stung in the shadow of halftime when Te Kani went for another charge at the tryline and Parkes was sinbinned for a professional foul in stopping him, and from an attacking penalty lineout, the pack rumbled through on a long driving maul for hooker Rikki Terekia to eventually got the ball down for 10-5.

Immediately after the break, a 14-man East Coast took advantage of lost Poverty Bay ball and a couple of penalties to attack the line, with Profit offloading a low pass to fullback Verdon Bartlett, who showed great hands to take it and run in the try, with Haerewa stepping up for the absent Parkes to add the extras.

Just three minutes later, East Coast had attacked into Poverty Bay’s 22m through their speedy winger Epeli Lotawa and then the home side again lost possession from the lineout, and from the attacking scrum, former All Black Zac Guildford worked the blindside perfectly for Lotawa to cross untouched, with Parkes again hitting the posts at 17-10.

Hoping to end their Heartland losing streak at 48 games, East Coast crucially lost Guildford to a hamstring injury, and after absorbing pressure in their 22m, Poverty Bay worked back to halfway and first-five Beaudein Waaka scored a brilliant individual try with an angled run and step to go under the posts, with his conversion again deadlocking the scores.

After having no luck with his last two kicks, Parkes lined up a 37m penalty attempt when Poverty Bay got trapped on the carry, and he quickly slotted it for 20-17 with 17 minutes left, with Lotawa also departing injured.

With just seven minutes left and Poverty Bay putting the pressure on inside the attacking half, East Coast lost their second lineout throw in a row, and the home town forwards drove to the line with reserve Semisi Akana getting it down in the tackle, Waaka converting.

For the second game in a row, East Coast bravely charged out of their own 22m with three minutes left, Crosswell making a series of great runs, but with their best attacking players injured, the underdogs eventually got caught in the ruck for a Poverty Bay penalty on the 25m to kick it out for fulltime.

In pulling out the late win, Poverty Bay kept their hopes of a Lochore Cup berth alive, leapfrogging Horowhenua-Kapiti into eighth spot after the Levin team was gutted to lose 25-20 to Wairarapa Bush in their challenge for the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup in Masterton.

The home side, who lifted the Bruce Steel from Wanganui for only the second time in 49 years in the opening round, continue to pull off the tightest of victories on their artificial turf, and have been rewarded for it by moving up into third spot, with a fair chance to push for a home semifinal in the last round.

Horowhenua-Kapiti opened the scoring at Memorial Park through a penalty by first-five Ethan Reti, but a reply penalty and then two tries by the home side had them pulling away, with Tim Priest, back in his preferred first-five role, landing two kicks for 15-3.

Reti added a second penalty just before halftime to close the gap, but Wairarapa Bush struck first after the break with their third try.

But Horowhenua Kapiti would not go away, as they traded tries with the home team in an exciting 50th to 60th minute period – the visitors five-pointers coming from winger Himiona Henare for the second game in a row, and flanker Nathan Kendrick.

It would be a tense but scoreless final quarter, as Wairarapa Bush having now picked up five wins but having a positive points differential of only nine shows how tight their matches have been this year.

Just like when they won the Bruce Steel from Wanganui, it was the two wingers who did the damage, as Tristan Flutey got a double to take his season tally to seven, while Logan Hebenton-Prendeville also found the line again.

Cameron Hayton came off the bench for the other try, as the bonus point proved crucial to tie North Otago for second place, although the Southerners get priority as they won the game between the teams in Dunedin in Week 2.

Horowhenua Kapiti are the only team in the bottom four who still have a chance to make the Lochore Cup playoffs in their final match in Levin, but it will take a massive lift as Wanganui had signalled their slump is well and truly over after ending King Country’s playoff hopes with a 57-19 hammering at Cooks Gardens.

Maintaining their firm hold of the Pinetree Log – the Sir Colin Meads Memorial Trophy – Wanganui have joined North Otago as being the only teams to run up a four-match winning streak this campaign, after Wanganui were all but written off from losing their first three matches.

Scoring nine tries to three for their fourth straight bonus point with a healthy differential, Wanganui led 28-14 at halftime, with returning fullback Nick Harding taking over the goal kicking from the first-five Dane Whale to add the crucial extras.

Wanganui’s forwards drove King Country off their own 5m scrum feed for Auckland import No 8 Ezra Meleisea to pick it up and dive over for an easy try.

Winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone showed great speed and balance to run right down the sideline and avoid the cover tacklers for two first half tries, lifting his season tally to six, while the other Auckland import Amos Pogia got his first try in Wanganui colours.

As well as the veterans in flanker Jamie Hughes and halfback Lindsay Horrocks dotting down, Wanganui got good service from their reserve bench with Ethan Robinson setting up a try for Peter Travis Hay-Horton and then scoring one himself.

Lock Josh Lane completed the rout with a try beside the posts near fulltime.

Having gone from first time Meads Cup semifinalists to eliminated from contention in the space of 12 months, King Country scored the first and last tries of the opening 40 minutes through reserve prop Dan Ross and winger Alex Thrupp, while reserve Jamin Pinkerton dotted down in the second half.

Results, Week 7.

Thames Valley 28 (Regan Crosland, Laulea Mau, Harry Lafituanai tries; Reece Broughton 2 con, 3 pen)
bt South Canterbury 24 (Cam Russell, Clarence Moli tries, penalty try; Miles Medlicott pen, Willie Wright 2 con)
HT: 14-7 South Canterbury.

Wairarapa Bush 25 (Tristan Flutey 2, Logan Hebenton-Prendeville, Cameron Hayton tries; Tim Priest con, pen)
bt Horowhenua Kapiti 20 (Himiona Henare, Nathan Kendrick tries; Ethan Reti 2 pen, 2 con)
HT: 15-6.

Wanganui 57 (Vereniki Tikoisolomone 2, Jamie Hughes, Ezra Meleisea, Amos Pogia, Lindsay Horrocks, Peter Travis Hay-Horton, Ethan Robinson, Josh Lane tries; Nick Harding 6 con)
bt King Country 19 (Dan Ross, Alex Thrupp, Jamin Pinkerton tries; Evaan Reihana 2 con)
HT: 28-14.

Buller 47 (James Lash 2, Jareth Mackay, Isei Lewaqai, Alex Paterson, Robbie Malneek tries; Lash 3 pen, 4 con)
bt West Coast 7 (Steve Soper try; Sean McClure con)
HT: 23-0.

North Otago 34 (Ralph Darling 2, Lemi Masoe, Marcus Balchin, Jake Greenslade, Melikisua Kolinisau tries; Robbie Smith 2 con)
bt Mid Canterbury 10 (Kody Nordqvist try; Corey McKay pen, con)
HT: 27-3.

Poverty Bay 24 (Matt Raleigh, Rikki Terekia, Beaudein Waaka, Semisi Akana tries; Waaka 2 con)
bt East Coast 20 (Hone Haerewa, Verdon Bartlett, Epeli Lotawa tries; Sam Parkes pen, Haerewa con)
HT: 10-5.

By: Jared Smith
Jared Smith is sports editor of the Whanganui Chronicle 

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