The calculators, Facebook points tables and finger-counting got a real workout at full time in front of the grandstand in Te Kuiti on Saturday as a relieved Steelform Wanganui learned two bonus points was enough to stay in the Lochore Cup semifinals.
But the reality is they will go into the Pink Batts Heartland Championship’s second-tier playoffs with a 3-5 losing record after a litany of dropped ball and an unlucky call with an injured player left them with a 30-29 loss to King County.
Given a licence, or direct command, to play attacking rugby on a perfect spring day, Wanganui completely dominated territory and possession in the first quarter of the game.
While aggressive second-five Rhema Sagote, busy winger Samu Kubunavanua, prop Kamipeli Latu and No8 Lasa Ulukuta could beat their man, their risky 50-50 passes slipped from mitts or spilled from the receiver’s hand, time and again.
King Country’s first line defence was brittle, but their desperate cover tackling held strong, and two quick tries shortly before half-time took them to a 15-10 advantage at the break.
Wanganui would regain the lead with their second try, both which came from a buildup of phases so they got to the line and thus no pass was needed once the key tackle was broken.
But the crucial moment came in the 56th minute when centre Tevita Taufui went down with a leg injury while Wanganui was getting a scrum feed.
In the hands of the trainer, Taufui stayed on as Wanganui attacked but it became immediately clear he could not run and while reserve winger Jaye Flaws stood poised beside manager Chris Back, they were now boxed in with 14-men until a stoppage.
Backs coach Jason Hamlin was virtually apoplectic into his radio about Flaws getting on, but Wanganui lost the ball and King Country spread to both sidelines until they found the overlap, with first-five Whakataki Cunningham drawing fullback Ace Malo and putting winger Dean Church away.
The 22-17 turnaround became 25-17 from a Cunningham penalty, but Wanganui did not give up as reserve halfback William Short injected himself brilliantly despite a lack of game time, taking the pressure off the forwards with some good runs and then collecting flanker Andrew Evans’ pass to crash over in the corner.
However, King Country were now climbing as reserve frontrower Adam Morris seemed to seal the deal after diving low in the far corner following a long drive for 30-22.
Wanganui had struggled in their attacking lineouts without injured lock Sonny Woodmass, who withdrew at lunchtime, along with hooker Cole Baldwin being slightly off with his throws.
But it was a King Country lineout botch with two minutes left that saved Wanganui’s season, as reserve hooker Roman Tutauha swooped on the loose ball and just kept going to smash over for the converted try that brought in two bonus points.
Thanks to West Coast upsetting Thames Valley in Greymouth, Wanganui stayed in eighth spot on the table, which means they do it all again this Saturday in Te Kuiti as King Country finished in fifth.
That alone should give them some confidence given King Country did nothing to truly overwhelm them.
Wanganui could lift further if the likes of Woodmass and Bryn Hudson are available, but the biggest work-on will be better ball security and concentration in the back end of each half, where dropping off tackles through tired attempts proved costly.
Discipline was much better with referee Brett Johnson not called to rule on anything too contentious, and the penalty count just 10-8 in favour of the visitors.
“The first half we had all the game, but just pushed the last pass too much,” said coach Jason Caskey.
“Through our training we wanted them to go out and attack so I can’t be critical of it.
“50-50 just cost us a little bit but they stayed there to the 80th minute.”
Captain Peter Rowe said the boys had been “on” at training with ball in hand.
“We thought [the passing] would have stuck but that happened.
“It killed us, that was disappointing.”
He was still pleased with the effort of guys like Areta Lama to come in at short notice and perform under pressure.
Malo again showed his crucial versatility for a backline lacking in specialists – landing four from five kicks while covering fullback, centre and first-five in the match.
Sagote was a handful, as was winger Simon Dibben, although they rued a couple of balls dropped cold.
By Jared Smith – WANGANUI CHRONICLE