There’s a group of men you may have heard of – they’re called the Steelform Wanganui rugby team.
That team plays keen, clinical, phase-orientated footy, takes it to their opposition and dares them to do the same, punishing them when they falter under the pressure.
And after nearly two seasons of regretful absence, that team turned up at a wet and windy Rugby Park in Te Kuiti on Saturday.
The most extraordinary aspect of the 37-6, six tries to none, shutdown of shellshocked favourites King Country in the Lochore Cup semifinal was that for the first 15 minutes, the show was going pretty much to script.
A nervous start where they spilled the kickoff, initial lineout throws were not straight, and the last-minute withdrawal of centre Tevita Taufui thrusting winger Jaye Flaws into an unfamiliar position, had Wanganui under the pump, with King Country first-five Whakataki Cunningham slotting successive penalties after infringements in the visitors’ 30m zone.
But for the next 40 minutes, either side of the break, King Country barely touched the ball as Wanganui chanced their arm out wide, but more importantly, snaffled back anything loose.
Barnstorming second-five Rhema Sagote collected low passes off his bootlaces, while fullback Ace Malo and winger Simon Dibben were outstanding as they dove in to save third and fourth phase ball that certainly would have been lost in games four weeks ago.
No8 Lasa Ulukuta, prop Kamipeli Latu, and locks Sonny Woodmass and Sam Madams were right with them and while the odd pass went astray or slipped from hand, Wanganui continued their inextricable march forward.
Halfback Lindsay Horrocks had a dream ride to chance his arm while Malo and winger Samu Kubunavanua confidently ran back King Country’s clearances as the gaps started to open up. Kubunavanua missed a try when Flaws’ floating pass drifted wide, but the makeshift centre redeemed when he found himself running out wide off a Sagote feed and took it to the line, with Horrocks diving across from the ruck.
Continuing to be fed quickly retrieved ball, first-five Areta Lama grubber kicked for Flaws and although King Country got the lineout, Cunningham dropped it cold and Wanganui’s pack swarmed, with Horrocks sending an inside flick pass for Kubunavanua to show great strength and ground the pill through two tacklers, on the touch judge’s call.
Malo (three from eight) was not having a good day with the difficult corner kicks, but Wanganui just kept coming as another Sagote dash saw him link with prop Viki Tofa, who made the pop pass for looming flanker Andrew Evans to score in the corner where King Country had a man down injured.
From a penalty lineout, Woodmass drove to the line, then Lama set up Sagote, who could not be stopped under the posts for the fourth try in 20 minutes.
Feeling it now, the Wanganui grins only got wider after the break as the pack drove again from another penalty lineout, with Horrocks and Lama also lending a shoulder, to push Cole Baldwin over the line for 30-6.
Wanganui ran the bench on with big Taranaki origin player Bryn Hudson making a welcome comeback, while Woodmass also looked comfortable in his return.
Players were all lining up for a crack at the line inside the final ten minutes as Hudson, reserve prop Shaun McDonough and captain Peter Rowe went close, before Malo dummied into a gap and scooted under the posts for a well-deserved try and easy conversion.
Having had the advantage of a 7-3 penalty count at one point from referee Cameron Stone, that ledger was evened up as King Country earned a series of tap kicks when they searched for some kind of consolation.
But Wanganui held them fast and again forced the turnover right on their line, as prop Carl Carmichael’s frustration got the better of him and he started trading punches with Rowe, getting nothing out of it but a yellow card with time up.
For coach Jason Caskey and deputies Jason Hamlin and Guy Lennox, the side had delivered their most complete performance since 2012.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Caskey.
“Last week we showed glimpses but not execution.
“Today, good cleanout and recycling and we did that bloody well.
“They’ve got a belief when they know how to play rugby.”
Rowe could not have been more proud.
“It’s just good to get a win away from home,” he said.
“I’m just rapt to see us scoring tries. Go forward – the penalties die off, the defence is good.
“If we took them and shifted wide, we were finding less people [defending]. It’s easier to recycle.
“It just felt better, we had a bit of fun together.”
The question now remains if Wanganui can do it on the road back-to-back, and especially in the South Island, as they have the daunting trip to Oamaru to face North Otago in the Pink Batts Heartland Championship Lochore Cup final on Sunday afternoon.
“We’ll be there in plenty of time,” said Caskey.
Wanganui 37 (L Horrocks, S Kubunavanua, A Evans, R Sagote, C Baldwin, A Malo tries; Malo pen, 2 con) beat King Country 6 (W Cunningham 2 pen). HT: 25-6.
By Jared Smith – Wanganui Chronicle