It took them more than an hour, but Waverley Harvesting Border finally got back to business as usual with their structure and ball carrying to officially end Black Bull Liquor Pirates’ mathematically faint hope of staying in playoff contention, 34-9 in Waverley on Saturday.
Thanks to Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist continuing their stunning form in the second round of Tasman Tanning Premier by upsetting previously unbeaten PGG Wrightson/Balance Taihape at Spriggens Park, Border’s six-try win lifted them to top of the table on points differential.
But bonus points were looking hard to come by early in a stop-start affair where Border played it very loose with ball in hand, helping keep the diminished two-time champion Pirates in the game with handling errors and penalties on both sides.
Border’s Irish lock Gavin Thornbury was like an island to himself as the one player displaying all the skills by stealing Pirates lineout throws from flanker Manulua Lafi, putting in some big tackles and handling three times in the 65m movement which led to him diving over beside the posts in 20th minute.
Border’s other regulars like Cole Baldwin – covering prop with two front rowers out – flanker Ray Stark and second-five Fraser Middleton were certainly physical on defence with some bone rattling tackles on Pirates’ big men.
But with Nick Harding (hamstring) and Kieran Hussey (concussion) on the sideline, Border’s offence was bogged down by wild passes and a constant symphony on the whistle from referee Noah Viliamu at the breakdown – Middleton extolling his men to use their head with ball in hand.
Aside from some jersey-waltzing in the first half, Pirates also kept their cool this week, getting through more than 75 minutes without a card issued until fullback Tupu Tavae, who otherwise was a standout, made professional foul with Border right on their tryline.
A tiring Pirates gave away two late tries to inflate the scoreline, with Border finally putting the phases together to spread from sideline to sideline – winger Tom Symes another to live up to standards with some scything runs.
Flanker Jake Alabaster was strong in Hussey’s absence, while the returned No8 Renato Tikoisolomone matched the Pirates physicality.
While Border have it within them to snap out of a funk, sadly Pirates no longer have the ability or personnel to just find another gear, but despite those glaring limitations it cannot be said they did not give it everything they had.
First-five Denning Tyrell tried to find runners in space, although he had to cover halfback late in the game when reserve Urealasi Taumaletua popped his shoulder out of socket – yet incredibly wanted to stay on the field with his team mates trying to re-set the dislocation.
Lafi and hooker Sanelle Ah Chookoon took plenty of hitups while Tavae was dangerous coming into the backline, although the decision to take a third penalty kick when 24-6 down with 18 minutes left showed Pirates were running out of steam.
Border coach Ross Williams agreed work was needed to tighten up the ball carries, although he pointed out training was kept light due to injury niggles with over a third of his team having three games in seven days due to the Town vs Country trial.
“I’m super proud of the effort, because Pirates was hungry. They were all together and keen – this was their season.
“Our defensive line was really good.”
Pirates coach Phillip Morris was pleased with the overall discipline, yet emphasised they were playing at a club where there was positivity on the field and from the sidelines, with no racial remarks made towards his island-born players.
“In the first half we played a lot of rugby but didn’t convert it into points.
“Just a bad five minute period in the second half where they scored twice. When you don’t have Denning yelling at his own players, you know they’re putting in the effort.”
Three players with broken bones, and a couple of games in the first round where intercepts sunk their chances, had all played a part in Pirates having to wave goodbye to the prospects of a championship three-peat.
But with four regular season games remaining, “we’re not waving the white flag yet”, Morris said.
After a dour first quarter, Thornbury brought things to life with a great run down the far sideline and inside ball to his support, with fullback Grayson Tihema carrying on before Thornbury handled again, as Border swept back to the goalposts and the big lock took the pass off the ruck to dive over.
Tihema and Denning would trade missed penalties, before Tavae took over and landed his second attempt right on halftime for 7-3 after Pirates got the better field position out of both team’s constant stream of turnovers.
Border finally put the puzzle together around the 50th minute as better line speed and passing out wide to Symes brought them back to the line, where prop Taitai Tuimauga drove through two tacklers off a Lindsay Horrocks short pass at the ruck to score.
Tavae replied with a penalty after the kickoff, but then Thornbury trumped Tuimauga’s effort as following good team buildup he kept the legs pumping to drag three Pirates over the line with him for 19-6.
Symes fumbled a Pirates kick clearance but then regathered to glide his way in-and-out of tackles and bring Border to the line again, with Tikoisolomone the next to score off the ruck.
Tavae’s third penalty pulled it back a little to 24-9, but Pirates would never get close again with two Border tries in the dying minutes.
Tihema collected a chip kick and bumped off one tackler to give speedy centre Kaveni Dabenanise room outside his man to dash away, then with time up Border’s backline spread immediately from a Pirates turnover and Symes ran in a deserved five-pointer.
Border 34 (Gavin Thornbury 2, Taitai Tuimauga, Renato Tikoisolomone, Kaveni Dabenanise, Tom Symes tries; Grayson Tihema 2 con) bt Pirates 9 (Tupu Tavae 3 pen). HT: 7-3.