IT WAS A scrap every step of the way but Steelform Wanganui got everything they wanted out of their 39-34 win to reclaim the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup from Horowhenua Kapiti at Levin Domain on Saturday.
Unfortunately, Wanganui’s first opening game victory in the Pink Batts Heartland Championship since 2012 also left them with nothing they needed as double try scorer and lineout jumper Daniel Fitzgerald dislocated his shoulder in the dying minutes, while veteran prop Brett Turner was left nursing rib damage.
Having re-injured his reconstructed shoulder, Fitzgerald is now gone for 2015 while Turner will be doubtful for the front row, leaving Wanganui again crucially short in their two most brittle areas.
“It’s the worst nightmare we could have had,” said coach Jason Caskey about losing Fitzgerald.
The ending marred an otherwise nail-biting match which fitted the occasion for inspirational captain Peter Rowe’s 100th cap and lock Fraser Hammond’s 50th game.
Neither team could shake the other over the 80 minutes, scoring tit-for-tat tries and swooping on opposition mistakes.
Hammond scored a brilliant try just after halftime from a powerful surge under the posts, highlighting an excellent match where he was front and centre for the hit-ups.
As second lineout jumper with lock Sam Madams, Fitzgerald was key in that spot, although halfback Lindsay Horrocks had to scramble for some loose bat downs, while Fitzgerald also proved crucial for capitalising on second phase ruck ball.
Wanganui were very nervous with their handling and the tension showed when the likes of winger Simon Dibben and prop Kamipeli Latu dropped missed penalty attempts behind their line from Horowhenua Kapiti’s standout fullback Brandyn Laursen, leading to 5m scrums.
The spotlight was well and truly on Wanganui’s schoolboy fullback Stephen Perofeta, who had one of the more memorable debuts imaginable.
On the negative side, there was the misreading of a charge down by both Perofeta and No8 Malakai Volou, which led to Horowhenua Kapiti lock Tipu Luke’s try, and then Perofeta was sin-binned for a desperate high tackle on rampaging winger Michael Tambour, with referee Richard Gordon signalling a penalty try.
On the plus side, Perofeta’s errors bookended his brilliant solo try from deep in his own half, while his defence was otherwise up to the task against bigger men. Inside the final 10 minutes he landed an excellent 43m penalty to take Wanganui out to a crucial 39-27 advantage.
“He had a nervous start, but overall, very impressed,” said Caskey of his young charge.
Wanganui got good service from their bench players as No8 Ranato Tikoilosomone stood up to some hard Horowhenua Kapiti shoulder charges, while winger Michael Nabuliwaqe linked with his former Utiku teammate Samu Kubunavanua in a clinical burst to put halfback Kane Tamou under the posts and give Wanganui breathing space at 36-27.
“As soon as we score points, we let them back into it. After halftime I thought we snuck away enough,” said Caskey.
He praised Hammond’s workrate during a tough day in the engine room, as Wanganui have a lighter pack than most teams this season.
“Some things never change, and one thing won’t be Fraser shirking hit-ups.”
Victorious in his 100th game, Rowe said both teams would have to go away and work on their defence.
“They’ve got a talented backline and attack from anywhere.
‘There were patches where we’d play some good footy, then we would go to sleep.
“It’s just guys pushing things.
“Our pack want to play with tempo, but just forcing things when it’s maybe better to go through the phases.”
For the home team, who would rue three near-misses on the tryline, captain flanker Antony Fox was at his scourging best, while No8 Tom Zimmerman was a handful and Laursen injected himself astutely in the midfield with Luke Harvey and Perry Hayman.
Laursen got several penalty chances early before Fitzgerald scored after Horrocks took the brave, and correct, decision to go for a quick tap with the home team stretched.
However, Luke’s immediately replied when he swooped on a ball that all the Wanganui sweepers missed, before Perofeta took off to make up for the mistake with a huge run, slipping his sole chaser to score.
But Perofeta’s fortunes swung yet again when Tambour sliced through the midfield and got caught high with his final step, seeing Gordon walk to the posts for 15-10.
Wanganui hooker Cole Baldwin was held up over the line but Wanganui stayed the course and after several rucks, Fitzgerald snuck down an open blindside for his second try to tie the scores at halftime.
The visitors exploded into the second stanza as Hammond dragged three defenders with him to plant the ball under the posts, then after Volau drove close to the chalk, centre Poasa Waqanibau snatched the loose ball and placed it for 29-15 after 45 minutes.
The officials somehow missed Horowhenua Kapiti’s forwards not retreating from offside as their busy first-five Hamish Buick caught an attacking bomb, and shortly afterwards Laursen jinked his way over to close the gap.
Wanganui errors saw the home team get a couple of 5m scrums, as Buick and Hayman combined to fire a long pass to an unmarked Teegan Minkley, who won the race to the corner.
Needing something at 29-27, Wanganui’s pacemen delivered as Nabuliwaqe got away and found Kubunanvanua, with the fresh Tamou showing his own turn of speed to dash under the posts.
Kicking with confidence, Perofeta’s great penalty had the visitors looking safe, before Horowhenua Kapiti worked off a series of penalties for reserve forward Dave McErlean to burrow over.
However, Horowhenua Kapiti inexplicably booted back Wanganui’s deep kickoff and Perofeta had the last say by chipping the ball out for fulltime.
Wanganui 39 (D Fitzgerald 2, S Perofeta, F Hammond, P Waqanibau, K Tamou tries; Z Hekenui 2 con, Perofeta pen, con)
Horowhenua Kapiti 34 (T Luke, B Laursen, T Minkley, D McErlean tries, penalty try; Laursen pen, 3 con)
By Jared Smith- Wanganui Chronicle