While it could be said that Country defeated Town 36-26 in the representative trial at Hunterville Domain yesterday afternoon, it can also be said Town had a hand in their own demise.
Not so much in terms of errors or penalties, although for makeshift teams unfamiliar with each other there was plenty of both, but changes throughout the game included a number of Town players switching teams to get more of a look in front of Steelform Wanganui coach Jason Caskey.
This led to a Country swinging back the momentum through the forwards and with better organisation in their kicking game to score 31 unanswered points after being down 26-5 in the second quarter.
In total, 43 players out of the original 68 invited turned up, although about five or six virtual certainties for the Heartland Championship squad are currently on the sideline.
Bryn Hudson was a late withdrawal with calf injury, while Cole Baldwin (knee), Lindsay Horrocks (head) and Peter Rowe (hamstring) were not going to play and Ruapehu’s lock Nick Cranston was surprisingly absent after being confirmed last week.
In the ever widening search for a first-five, a very well-known family name in New Zealand rugby made a strong case for inclusion.
Hilton Mexted, the son of 34-test All Black and television commentator Murray Mexted, ran the cutter for the Town team and was the goal kicker – impressing in the early stages as Town had much more cohesion out wide.
Midfielders Poasa Waqanibau and Kameli Kuruyabaki, along with winger Clive Stowers, were running riot.
Watched by his All Black father in the grandstand, the junior Mexted is said to be doing well in the Wellington club scene, but has a traffic jam around him into the ITM Cup squad.
“He was keen to come up for a trial and it’s a position where we had two first-fives in the Town team, and neither could play,” said Caskey.
After Town’s good start, the second quarter break saw several Wanganui veterans like lock Sam Madams and utility back Ace Malo swap their blue jerseys for red, as did others like flanker Bobo Ulukuta, while William Short went in the other direction.
Introducing a little more muscle for phase-orientated play, with fullback Zyon Hekenui coming into the front line on attack, Country got in the better positions and their bolters, like double-tryscorer Michael Nabuliwaqa, did the rest.
Caskey needed an entirely imported midfield last season in Rhema Sagote and Tevita Taufui, but the local talent pool looked stronger here with Waqanibau and Kuruyabaki solid on attack, while centre Cyrus Tasi powered over for Country’s opening try.
But that was with ball in hand – by the same token, the missed tackles and risky passes under pressure in their own half was a blight for both sides.
“I saw some good things today, also a few things where we’re definitely short,” said Caskey. “We swapped guys to Country and it swung things around a bit.”
Waqanibau broke the line early and linked with Kuruyabaki on his shoulder, taking Town to the tryline for No8 Apenisa Ratugolea to score.
A few minutes later, Waqanibau was through again and made a beautiful flick pass to lock Jake Alabaster, who spread for Stowers to beat his man and cross for 12-0.
The procession continued as Country’s backs spilled the ball and Waqanibau was up and gone under the posts.
After both sides struggled with penalties at ruck time, Mexted spied a half gap and shot through, putting flanker Kieran Hussey over for 26-5.
Country regrouped and worked off a couple of surges by No8 Tremaine Gilbert, who on his second crack at the line got over for 26-12 at halftime.
Reinforced after the break, Country exploded with back-to-back breakout tries, as Nabuliwaqa broke through the midfield and glided through three tackles to go under the posts, and then the entire backline handled for Jaye Flaws to dive over in the corner and bring the scoreboard right back to 26-24.
Entering the final quarter, Malo defused an attacking bomb and cut through the chasers, feeding Ulukuta who turned the ball to Tasi to put Nabuliwaqa into the corner and jogging back behind the posts for Country to hit the lead 31-26.
Getting a penalty lineout at the tryline, the Country forwards drove at the line and three of them went over with the ball carrier to wrap it up right on fulltime.
Country 36 (M Nabuliwaqa (2), C Tasi, T Gilbert, unknown tries; Z Hekenui 2 con, T Transom con)
Town 26 (A Ratugolea, C Stowers, P Waqanibau, K Hussey tries, H Mexted 3 con. HT: 26-12 Town.
By Jared Smith – Wanganui Chronicle