Call it the finals effect. Whatever happens during regular season, when survival depends on winning, the natural law of sport seems to change.
A team can have the better of large parts of the match and the statistics, but getting points on the board takes something more.
Integrity Motors Pirates knew this and PGG Wrightsons/Balance Taihape learned it in a thrilling Tasman Tanning Premier semifinal at Spriggens Park on Saturday.
Pirates edged the match 25-24 to set up a final with Waverley Harvesting Border who eased past McCarthy’s Transport Ruapehu at Dallison Park.
Taihape will look back at the opening 20 minutes, in which they failed to turn total domination into any points, and wonder how instead the home side managed a 14-0 halftime lead out of nothing.
It was a game of little moments and two Taihape kicks hitting the post and a successful drop goal by Pirates had the biggest bearing on the outcome. After Luke Whale’s penalty hit the uprights in the first minute, Taihape piled pressure on Pirates, using quick, long passing in search for space.
Second-five Cyrus Tasi made some impressive runs but Pirates held firm with fullback Josaia Dawai defusing much of the Taihape kicking game.
While the home side were constantly penalised for breakdown infringements, Taihape turned down several shots at goal in favour of close range lineouts.
It came to nothing, however, and nearing the end of a dominant first quarter, Whale had another shot sail wide.
Pirates had survived the onslaught thanks to experienced heads such as first-five Denning Tyrell, and from their first close range lineout managed to roll over the top of Taihape for prop Willie Kabakaba to open the scoring in the 25th minute.
Shortly before halftime, injured referee Kawana Tihema was replaced by a sideline official.
Pirates dangerous backline finally fired up when winger Pena Ulukuta skirted around the visitors for a 14-0 halftime lead.
Taihape kept stringing phase on phase, winning a succession of penalties, and with flanker Faalafi Vave in the sinbin, Pirates had to crack.
It had taken 50 minutes but a dinky run from Taihape halfback Brett Nicholls meant the visitors had finally banked something for their efforts.
The teams then traded penalties, with first-five Tom Wells taking over the kicking for Taihape.
As the match drifted, Tyrell popped over a dropped-goal which stretched Pirates to 20-10 and ultimately proved hugely valuable.
Pirates had just got back to 15 men when reserve Meni Taufaasau was shown yellow, as now it was Wells’ turn for a kick to hit the post.
Soon after though, lock Johnson Hiroa crossed over for Taihape as Wells slotted the conversion from the touchline to close the gap to three and spark a frantic closing quarter.
Pirates responded minutes later when winger Clive Stowers latched on to the ball at pace and couldn’t be stopped, putting his side ahead 25-17.
But they could not shake the Taihape side who had beaten them in both round robin games.
With five minutes left Taihape’s standout winger Jaye Flaws muscled his way over, with Wells slotting the extras for a one-point game.
Time was almost up and Pirates were seemingly safe as Taihape were awarded a scrum at their own tryline.
Running 100m was their only option and led by Flaws they almost did, only to see the ball into touch at the buzzer.
For Taihape it will be a loss hard to take, given their success against the city club this year.
But should they claim the championship in the coming years, they may well look back that this match taught them a lot about winning the big one.
For Pirates coach Phillip Morris, it was relief and gave him confidence in his team’s ability to play finals rugby.
“The boys were hungry for success,” he said.
“As I said, it’s all about pressure and these boys eat it for breakfast. They’ve been there before.”
He acknowledged inspirational captain Lasa Ulukuta’s leadership, the spark added from the bench and experienced decision-making, such as Tyrell’s dropped goal.
“Three points is a lot of points in a final,” Morris said. “I told the boys, there’ll only be one or two points in it.”
Controlling the breakdown remains a problem for Morris, who said lost ball in contact would need to be tidied up and his side would have to lift another 10 per cent for Saturday’s decider.
“Now it’s the best of two. It’s not about ability, it’s a mental thing now. The job’s only half done now. If you’re going to do the job, you’ve got to do it properly. Roll on next week.”
Integrity Motors Pirates 25 (Willie Kabakaba, Pena Ulukuta, Clive Stowers tries, Denning Tyrell pen, dg, 2 con) PGG Wrightson/Ballance Taihape 24 (Brett Nicholls, Johnson Hiroa, Jaye Flaws tries, Tom Wells pen, 3 con. HT: 14-0.
By Zaryd Wilson – Wanganui Chronicle