THE RUGBY fans who stood in the middle of Memorial Park on Saturday afternoon were mainly there to watch PGG Wrightson/Ballance Taihape put on a solid display against Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist on the back No2 field.
However, after 60 minutes of a dour stop-start affair riddled with drop ball, Taihape ultimately prevailing 17-0, the majority had turned their heads to the No1 ground, where former cellar dwellers Utiku Old Boys were about to pull off their most significant victory in several seasons, hanging on by inches to defeat an understrength McCarthy’s Transport Ruapehu 34-31 in a country rugby classic.
The victories leave the two Memorial Park tenants as the only undefeated teams to have played three matches in Tasman Tanning Premier, although it’s safe to say the singing in the Utiku changing shed denoted theirs was the more memorable performance.
“We played all the rugby but let ourselves down,” said Taihape coach Kerry Whale. “We’re playing at a tempo no one can match but letting ourselves down.”
Still happy with four competition points, Whale was satisfied his whole squad had got a solid hitout, predicting big things for the likes of former league player Cyrus Tasi, who made a strong impression when he came on to attack the line in the second half.
“We’re okay, everyone got to play, that’s the main thing.”
Marist coach Jason Hamlin said his team simply could not clear their territory to capitalise on the mountain of fumbles.
“[The defending] took its toll. Not enough ball so you can’t build pressure, and then we’d kick it away.
“We worked hard, [but] it’s being a bit smarter and not having to work so hard. It’s a mistake factor thing.”
Taihape, with one of Premier’s fittest forward packs to compensate for being one of the smallest, spread to each sideline with little concern, but their hands constantly let them down on the third and fourth phases, with multiple tryscoring opportunities going begging.
Marist were worse – playing without territory and falling victim to Taihape’s sleight of hand at the breakdown to lose crucial ball, while disputing several of referee Noah Viliamu’s interpretations.
Trapped in their own half, they still defended gamely with the likes of centre Matt Neilson putting on several big hits, while winger Simon Dibben thankfully made himself available at the last minute and shored up his sideline.
If Taihape could have capitalised on centre Cyrus Paringatai’s probing, then points were there for the taking, but the key pass always slipped from hand.
No one, from representative winger Jaye Flaws back down the line to prop Richard Iorns, was without sin, while their lineout also became a lottery.
After 38 minutes, Taihape finally got close enough that passes were not required – prop Slade Hay Horton going himself from the ruck after Paringatai’s dart to score beside the posts.
Unlike last year, Taihape had bench depth to give themselves more impetus, which paid off in the third quarter as Jonathan Maxwell, Timi Teepa and especially 130kg newcomer Tasi gave them some renewed vigour with the pick-and-go.
The stocky Tasi ran hard at the line, then Taihape spread through first-five Tom Wells to put goalkicking winger Taylor Transom over in the corner.
Marist tackled hard to keep Taihape out, through the likes of flanker Lake Ah Chong and lock Sam Stewart, while No8 Jake Alabaster got too aggressive challenging Wells and earned a yellow card.
But play was fairly stagnant from that point, as all the crowd noise was coming across the pitch on the No1 field.
Having travelled without standout captain Peter Rowe and representative first-five Zyon Hekenui, Ruapehu moved their veteran No8 Andrew Evans to No10 and resolved to play tight around the ruck.
But while they did not have the same forward might, Utiku had the intangibles in the form of their contingent of Fijian flyers, who can break into open pastures at any moment.
Utiku would suffer the blow of losing tryscorer Samu Kubunavanua with a broken arm, after he had cut loose with fellow outside backs Michael Nabuliwaqa and Semi Rabradra, along with No8 Malakai Volou.
Nabuliwaqa swept down the sideline from his own half to slip through Ruapehu’s young backline and waltz under the posts for 17-3.
A barge over by Volou led to 22-3 at the break, before Ruapehu finally made territory work for them with a close range try, to close the gap to 22-10.
Utiku earned their bonus point as winger Willy Hirini chased a kick and, although he could not link up with the support at an open line, Volou still went over from the ruck for a 27-10 lead that would have been inconceivable 12 months before.
But Ruapehu were not done. Led by Evans, centre Tautahi Rawiri and returning tryscoring hooker Roman Tutauha, they camped on Utiku’s line to smash their way over for two more tries, the latter from a continuous 25m rolling maul.
Flanker David Gower and Tiroi Brown got their names on the sheet.
Ruapehu’s veteran pack did it again as they secured a tighthead right in front of the posts and Evans set himself to barge over for an extraordinary 31-27 comeback with 10 minutes to go.
But thoughts Utiku had nothing left were cast aside as somehow Hirini found a gap up the middle and freed his arms in the tackle, to send a jubilant Nabuliwaqa off under the posts.
Ever defiant, Ruapehu swamped Utiku’s line, whose tired forwards were desperately holding out, then Tutauha dived low in injury time and was held up right on the chalk in a heart-stopping final play.
“I’m just too excited, from what we’ve been through,” said jubilant Utiku coach Gavin Thompson on the remarkable change in fortune so far this year.
“These guys put 80 points on us in the first round last year.
“Everyone [delivered] – we fought back, it’s just pleasing to coach these boys. We can do it.”
By Jared Smith – Wanganui Chronicle