STEELFORM Wanganui are Ashburton-bound this weekend for the Meads Cup semifinals but they will be taking with them a lot of memories from the artificial turf of Masterton’s Memorial Park after an extraordinary 57-35 victory over Wairarapa-Bush on Saturday.
In the quintessential game of two halves, Wanganui played the finest opening 40 minutes of their season with loose forwards and outside backs alike running riot through non-existent defence to have a bonus point within 20 minutes and a surely impenetrable 47-0 lead at the break.
But their tendency to go off the boil happened yet again, this time to the extreme. After the contentious sinbinning of tryscorer Samu Kubunavanua from the kick-off, Wairarapa-Bush wracked up five consecutive seven-pointers to have the home crowd sniffing blood and possibly the Pink Batts Heartland Championship’s greatest-ever comeback at 47-35 with 14 minutes remaining.
Playing without injured captain Peter Rowe and subbing their other veterans like flanker Fraser Hammond and stand-in captain Cole Baldwin early on when things were under control, Wanganui’s lesser lights were all at sea and had the ball on only three occasions, each time turned over as Wairarapa-Bush switched from desperation raids to their preferred forward-orient ed phases.
Regaining their sanity inside the final 10 minutes, Wanganui were smart enough to accept a second penalty shot in front for centre Trinity Spooner-Neera (eight goals from nine attempts) to re-establish a 15-point advantage. Then Spooner-Neera crossed with five minutes left after an individual burst from flanker Malaki Volau, who stood up in the final stages, for a try met with near silence from both the disappointed home supporters and the large Wanganui contingent who were almost too relieved to cheer.
No8 Bryn Hudson won back some priceless turnovers, following a first half where he and Hammond, second five Poasa Waqanibau, fullback Ace Malo and first five Stephen Perofeta were virtually unstoppable. Tellingly, Wanganui were much smarter when hot on attack as the players who busted the line had the foresight to go into the tackle and recycle the ball back, letting the team score from the following phases instead of losing possession from risky passes like in previous weeks.
“At the time, they couldn’t match us,” said Baldwin.
“We were patient and made the most of our opportunities.”
But after coming off in the 62nd minute, with lock Jon Smyth taking over the captaincy, Baldwin and the bench had to watch in agony as Wairarapa-Bush followed up their helter-skelter attack, getting two tries while Kubunavanua sat out, to scoring three more times on every raid into Wanganui’s 22m.
Only No8 So’otala Fa’aso’o had bothered Wanganui in the first half and after he was injured from the bust that led to his team’s opening try, the mantle was passed to double tryscorer Andy Humberstone at second-five, while halfback Cody Whittaker dived over the pack after a series of raids and then both hooker Andrew Makalio and reserve Cameron Hayton were pushed over by well-set forward drives.
Flanker James Goodger leapt to contest every kick, while first five Tim Priest kept nailing conversions from all corners of the park.
“We just stopped our line speed, weren’t as aggressive as the first half,” said Baldwin, who had epitomised aggression while he was out there. “We just thought [the win] was going to happen; obviously Wairarapa-Bush came out firing.”
There was a degree of good fortune in Humberstone’s second try after the linesman and Wellington referee Richard Gordon seemed to miss an obvious knock-on by a Wairarapa-Bush forward when collecting a loose Wanganui pass, before fullback Corey McFadzean dashed away to set up the score.
However, Wanganui coach Jason Caskey’s biggest contention with Gordon after the game was the sinbinning of Kubunavanua, when he went up to contest the second-half kickoff against Goodger, both making contact in the air and landing hard.
“[Gordon’s] take was they were always going to win it because they were lifting the guy,” said Caskey. “So the first kickoff, we were down a player for 10.”
Hindsight is everything because the influential Hammond was subbed after 29 minutes with Wanganui 40-0 ahead, and by 47-35 he was sorely missed.
“At the time, it was ‘bigger games to come’,” said Caskey.
“We just didn’t get our hands on the ball enough [in the second half]. We rushed it and took bad options.”
The heart palpitations of the second 40 minutes should not overshadow how brilliant Wanganui were in the first half – scoring more than a point a minute.
Winger Michael Nabuliwaqe grabbed a great team try off leadup by Hammond, Hudson, prop Viki Tofa and Malo, before Hudson finished off a Waqanibau surge to score in the corner.
Wairarapa-Bush couldn’t win a lineout or buy a line kick and Wanganui kept the hits coming as Malo dummied into a big gap to score and then prop Kamipeli Latu was driven over with help from lock Sam Madams for 26-0.
Kubunavanua snatched a loose ball from the home team’s breakdown and dashed 50 metres untouched, while Madams gratefully accepted a one-handed offload from Waqanibau to dive over.
It was looking all too easy as Perofeta made mugs of another Heartland backline with a step off both feet to waltz over for the seventh try in 34 minutes.
But as Wanganui soon realised, and must take with them for the away Meads Cup semifinal against Mid Canterbury, no game is over until it’s over.
By Jared Smith – Wanganui Chronicle