If there was any ray of sunshine that slipped through the dark clouds above a packed Cooks Gardens on Saturday afternoon, then for just the briefest of moments, it shone on Steelform Wanganui, who scrapped with their fingernails to hold off a gallant Buller 20-18 to retain the Meads Cup.
Once again, a national television audience was treated to an absorbing conclusion to the Mitre 10 Heartland competition, but unlike the running rugby of 12 months ago, this was a rugged drag out where it seemed Wanganui’s perfect unbeaten season would be taken from them at the last gasp.
Led by a committed forward pack, including six of their seven reserves, all guided by maestro first-five James Lash, Buller pressured a hesitant Wanganui to a mountain of mistakes, making turnovers at ratio of 10-1, and seemed likely to maintain their 18-10 second half advantage right till fulltime.
However, even when outgunned, Wanganui found a way as a tightly controlled 45m movement, taking in multiple phases, finally saw every pass stick to hand as dynamic Irish lock Gavin Thornbury, in front of his globe-travelling father, took the pass from centre Blake Hohaia and dived over to snatch the lead with nine minutes remaining.
Yet Buller stayed on the charge and looked to their little general Lash to save them once again – receiving not one by two penalty opportunities from 40m out, on each side of the posts, to surely send the game into extra time.
But somehow Lash, 2016’s top points scorer who has won matches single-handedly for Buller all season, pushed both kicks outside the nearest upright, leaving the Meads Cup back at the WRFU offices for another year.
Wanganui’s props Tietie Tuimauga and Viki Tofa took a pounding all match, while Thornbury was tested by opposing locks Ciaran Neilsen and David Egelstaff as never before in the Heartland season.
The halves of Lindsay Horrocks and Dane Whale struggled to connect with their runners, while even the normally reliable hands of No8 Malakai Volau and fullback Ace Malo let them down at times.
Buller had the answer to Wanganui’s tearaway winger Te Rangatira Waitokia in the form of their excellent fullback Anthony Tailua, who managed to beat him on the outside to score the second of his two tries.
However, the missed tackle aside, Waitokia literally grew up before his supporters eyes with a composed performance – making some crucial trysaving tackles and seizing the initiative to set up Wanganui’s first score when he hit the line at pace and selflessly made sure of the try by putting second-five Craig Clare over untouched.
Clare kicking four from four also proved crucial given Lash’s late misses, as well as missing drop goal attempts in each half – statistics which should not belie how outstanding his tactical kicking was and the fact he saved at least two tries for Buller in the sweeper position.
It turned into the arm wrestle that Wanganui coach Jason Caskey had feared, but he was proud that even when literally everything went wrong, the players picked each other up to keep trying.
“We had a bad day. Really proud we could come through under pressure.
“The amount of time the pass went to someone in open and they dropped it.
“Our decision-making at times was poor. That’s finals rugby.
“I’m just so proud of them, to go through the year we had.
“Nothing was give to them today. [It was] they way they presented themselves and got in.”
Caskey stuck to his strategy by making the big call to substitute centenarian captain Peter Rowe with 15 minutes to go, and his understudy Jamie Hughes delivered – hounding Lash and winning the crucial breakdowns in the dying moments.
“You got to back him and Jamie is a great player,” said Caskey.
“Pete’s a wise old dog, but Jamie had the pace.
“He probably won the game for us with that turnover.”
Relieved captain Peter Rowe agreed Buller were outstanding, testing Wanganui’s resolve like no-one else in 2016.
“They pulled us into a fight.
“You could see it creeping in – the pressure.
“The boys kept believing, and kept hanging in there.”
After losing possession countless times in front of Buller’s tryline, Rowe felt it was a testament to their willpower that Wanganui maintained control through multiple phases to finally crack the line for Thornbury’s try.
“It’s the one time in the game we got there and something went our way.”
Wanganui put themselves under pressure in the opening exchanges as simple surges of the ruck were dropped cold, as Buller went for ball-in-all tackles which jolted the pill lose.
Thornbury also missed some lineouts, and Lash coolly opened his team’s account with a penalty following a high tackle in the 16th minute.
Wanganui hit back and it seemed Volau may have scored, only for the TMO to rule he was short, and then his signature reserve inside flick from the 5m scrum was mistimed so flanker Campbell Hart couldn’t collect.
Wanganui rapidly reset and Waitokia steamed onto a cut-out Whale pass and staved off ‘white-line fever’ to put Clare over for 8-2.
Lash continued to get the better of the kicking duel and big centre Joshua Tuidriva gave Whale a nightmare flashback of the local club final at Cooks Gardens when he charged down his drop goal attempt but couldn’t hang on to dash away.
Clare landed a settling penalty in the 32nd minute for 10-2, but Buller hit back immediately after a blunder by Auckland referee James Doleman who ruled Wanganui winger Michael Nabuliwaqe had knocked on a grubber kick which clearly struck his knees.
From the scrum, Lash hit Tailua with a great pass and the fullback stepped through clean to lock the scores up.
Buller were coming home strong as winger Petaia Saukuru barely put a foot in touch after collecting another Lash grubber kick, while the first-five put a drop kick wide on the halftime siren.
They kept it up after the break as Malo could not hang onto a midfield bomb and Buller pounced, getting a penalty and opting for the scrum, with Lash sending another long pass to Tailua who stepped the jersey-clutching Waitokia and got his team the lead 18-10.
Wanganui immediately got back down on attack, yet every time the key men from Tuimauga, to Waitokia, Hohaia and Horrocks were stopped cold or pressured into fumbles, with Lash booting his team clear.
Clare nearly reclaimed a grubber kick to score, but fumbles were killing their chances with time running out.
Needing a boost, Rowe had Clare take a penalty kick in the 62nd minute to narrow the gap to 18-12 and give Wanganui a shot at the lead if they could finally break the defence.
But more fumbles left Buller in range of another Lash drop goal attempt, which missed, while the little playmaker read Horrocks’ attacking chips perfectly to scramble his side out of trouble.
It took until the 71st minute, but Wanganui finally took control and kept it, as fresh legs off the bench in Hughes and Samu Kubunavanua helped them work forward, along with Tofa taking multiple hit ups, and from a good position, Horrocks finally found Hohaia in space and he offloaded for Thornbury to bring the house down with the try.
Clare added the extras to give them the lead, but the fingernails were worn thin when his team spilled the kickoff and Buller worked calmly into position, getting penalty opportunities in the 77th and 79th minutes.
But Lash somehow missed both chances, and turnover for holding inside the final minute saw Wanganui kick the ball into the stands to consign 2016 into the history books.
Wanganui 20 (Craig Clare, Gavin Thornbury tries; Clare 2 pen, 2 con)
bt Buller 18 (Anthony Tailua 2 tries; James Lash pen, 2 con). HT: 10-10.
By Jared Smith – Wanganui Chronicle