If anyone was going to be player of the day at Spriggens Park on Saturday then it would be King Neptune, as it was the swirling winds coming from the coast which had the biggest impact during McCarthy Ruapehu’s 11-10 win over Integrity Motors Pirates.
In what remains likely the preview matchup for August 2’s Tasman Tanning Premier grand final, both sides have now spilt their games in 2014, beating each other by one point in the away clash.
But while Saturday’s game had the ebb-and-flow expected between the top of the table squads, the shifts in momentum had more to do with what each did wrong, rather than what they did right.
Dropped ball blighted many promising moves, with Ruapehu looking to spend a tense final quarter keeping the ball in tight, which brought referee Ben Lourie into play to blow repeated penalties both ways in the close contact, whereas Pirates tried to work their key big men into position to bust the line.
Pirates No8 Manulua Lafi had the opportunity to claim the match for his team with two second half penalty attempts from 35-40m out, but the breeze which was supposed to be at their backs changed direction constantly, leaving one attempt to strike the lower post and the other to drop right on the middle of the cross bar and bounce back.
After Pirates absorbed a lot of pressure midway through the first half, centre Kameli Kuruyabaki scooped up loose pass from his opposite Owen King and dashed 60m to score.
His team then went hot on attack with a series of tap kicks trying to force one more crucial try before halftime, but they continued to struggle to maintain possession while being stung by the injury to the previous weekend’s double tryscorer Rusiate Vukula, then crucially their influential lock Simon Hillis was helped to the sideline clutching his ankle.
Pirates weakness of leaving their blindside unguarded, which was so costly against Harvey Round Motors Ratana a fortnight ago, came back to haunt as standout Ruapehu hooker Roman Tutauha dashed over untouched in the far corner following a rolling maul shortly after the resumption.
Neither team could add to the score after that.
Both Ruapehu coach Chris Winter and his Pirates counterpart Phillip Morris waved their arms in various directions when explaining just how much the swirling draft was a factor.
“It was stop and start,” said Winter.
“You couldn’t run that way, because you couldn’t pass the ball, then [the wind] would come and go and then drop like this.”
Ruapehu’s victory had come straight down to doing the basics with ball being turned over from either spills or infringement on every other breakdown, they had exert pressure and make each tackle count on Pirate’s big ballrunners.
“We try to pride ourselves on our D [defence]. It’s a big emphasis at our trainings.”
Morris said Hillis’ ankle appeared serious, although despite losing key men Pirates tapped into their resources on the bench to keep parity with the defending champions.
“We thought at halftime we had a wind advantage, but we didn’t really.
“We just couldn’t get enough ball to get momentum.
“It was difficult conditions and it came down to accuracy at the set piece, where we’d lost our No1 lineout jumper.”
There were rare moments throughout the game where both sides managed to find open pastures, but those avenues rapidly closed.
Pirates prop Brett Turner was bundled out in the opening moments after his fellow front rowers put him through the gap, then Ruapehu winger Robert Hughes snatched a dropped ball before being caught at the end of a 60m breakout.
Pirates first-five Denning Tyrell was willing to chance his arm into the breeze from their own 22m, but players like winger Motoi Alaifea struggled to hang onto the last pass.
Ruapehu had tinkered with their lineup, bringing veteran prop Shaun McDonough on to start while young fullback Zyon Hekenui had swapped to first-five with George Williams.
Both kickers needed players to hold the ball with a finger as Lafi scored the first points, and then Hekenui landed back-to-back kicks in five minutes for 6-3 in the second quarter.
Kuruyabaki’s dash and Lafi’s good sideline conversion in the breeze took Pirates back to the front, but despite a series of free kicks they could not land a knockout blow before halftime.
Tutauha sneaking over after his forward’s drive put his team back in front, then play returned to its stop-start nature in between the 22m zones.
Ruapehu managed to keep Pirates back, forcing them to run it from inside their own half top tryscoring winger CJ Stowers having the best chance in a breakout from their line, before Hekenui got him in a very good covering tackle.
Lafi was the remaining hope Pirates had to regain the lead, but when his 69th minute penalty attempt was denied by only a few inches of crossbar wood, it became clear it would not be the home side’s day.
McCarthy’s Ruapehu 11 (Roman Tutauha try, Zyon Hekenui 2 pen) bt Integrity Motors Pirates 10 (Kameli Kuruyabaki try, Manulua Lafi pen, con). HT: 10-6 Pirates.
By Jared Smith – WANGANUI CHRONICLE