Facing a reinforced home side with all their stars available, while missing several front-liners themselves, Wanganui emptied the tanks and played on vapours in the final quarter, as the Cantabrians were convinced they could break them with a constant up-tempo style – running from their own half and taking a constant stream of tap kicks and quick lineouts.
Wanganui also had to overcome some head-shaking decisions from the South Island assistant referees, who did not give referee Nick Webster the support he needed.
Specifically was awarding South Canterbury a bizarre try from a missed penalty kick just after halftime, while the linesman twice arrived late and therefore did not get eyes on Wanganui seemingly scoring in the grandstand corner through player of the day fullback Nick Harding and dynamic No8 Bryn Hudson.
Defusing bombs, accuracy in general play and steady goal kicking – with one notable exception – were the highlights of Harding’s effort, while Hudson was an enforcer on defence and very composed in the dying stages when South Canterbury to desperate to regain scrum ball.
If Wanganui were looking for heroes, they had one in lock Sam Madams, who had perhaps his finest match in the jumper – topping the tackle count again, while in concert with Campbell Hart the locks spoiled much of the home side’s lineout ball.
Having fallen in a Meads Cup play-off game for the third year in a row, South Canterbury will rue their spilled passes and dropped ball in key moments, as they had the benefit of the penalty count and game breakers all over the park – especially returning fullback Liam Edwards, who sparked the impetus for a brilliant 90m team try just before halftime.
Captain Kieran Coll led from the front, while centre Vatiliai Tora and winger Setefano Sauqaqa took some stopping, as did reserve second-five Kevin Moore and big loose forward Sireli Buliruarua when they came on.
But stop them Wanganui did, with many earning mentions in despatches.
Prop Hamish Mellow was in considerable pain travelling to the ground, but gutted out the entire first half despite the massive weight of the South Canterbury scrum on his injured back.
Young second-five Ethan Robinson turned the game with a brilliant intercept and 75m dash to set up winger Simon Dibben scoring Wanganui’s opening try, after defending over 10 phases in their 22m zone as South Canterbury were beginning to find the gaps.
Winger Cameron Crowley stayed down after taking a hard knock to his shoulder, but once recovered he never shirked taking pressure off the forwards with his jinking runs, while also setting up Hudson’s try right on halftime in a great response to South Canterbury’s end-to-end score.
While Wanganui still have many veterans of sudden death football, the youngsters in the team likewise lived up to the standard, which even had their stoic captain Cole Baldwin – inspiring on defence before handing the reins to equally colossus Roman Tutauha – showing his emotions at the after-match.
“We’ve had a couple of results [where] we got ourselves into trouble in games earlier,” he said at fulltime.
“We deserved that win. I thought we were the better team.”
While speaking carefully, Baldwin was clearly looking forward to this Saturday’s Meads Cup final in Levin having a different batch of assistant referees.
“That’s just life – got to expect that on, how you say, a foreign field [with] home town touchies.
“We all did the job that’s required and that’s the pleasing thing.
“[Madams] did his job. There was no passengers today, everyone stood up.”
It was nothing less than coach Jason Caskey expected, even if he was one of the few.
“There wouldn’t have been many people that gave us a hope,” he said.
“But the belief these boys have – to defend and to stay together.”
“It was a great game. Sometimes being the underdog is not a bad thing.”
Both sides weathered early attacks, with Harding opening the scoring after halfback Lindsay Horrocks, who took the main tactical kicking duties, forced South Canterbury into overextending at the breakdown.
Harding then nailed a 46m penalty attempt for 6-0 after 14 minutes, before South Canterbury halfback Willie Wright replied after Robinson made a late charge on Tora.
Wright was offline with two of his long range attempts as the hosts poured on the pressure, and even though first-five Dane Whale was penalised for a fumbled intercept attempt, Robinson was not afraid to have a crack himself.
He snatched a long pass on Wanganui’s 22m and streaked away, and despite speedsters Tora and Kalavini Leatigago running him down, Robinson went the right way towards the looming Dibben, who he put over the line for 13-3.
Wanganui went straight back on attack before losing possession on the 5m, during which centre Kaveni Dabenaise took a knock to his leg.
Eagle-eyed Edwards spotted it and ran from his tryline to link up with Sauqaqa, who worked around Dabenaise’s outside and then turned the ball back infield to Edwards, who put up a chip kick and regathered before finding first-five Jared Trevathan to send Wright under the posts for one of 2017’s great tries.
But Wanganui never let their heads drop and it was the home side who went to sleep before the halftime break, as Whale ran to a gap and passed to Crowley, who drew several defenders and found Hudson inside him to rampage through the last defender and score.
It was a nightmare start to the second half as Wright spliced a penalty attempt to the far side of the goalposts, but Moore came charging through and despite Horrocks claiming he forced the ball in-goal first, the touch judge believed Webster could award a try for 20-17.
South Canterbury kept running it from deep and when Madams wrapped up Leatigago, the home team got too eager with their hands and Harding slotted a 37m attempt for more breathing space.
The fullback then finally had a missed kick on a 46m attempt, while Whale tried a couple of well offline drop goal attempts with his side beginning to suck in the breaths.
Dabenaise found Harding with an overhead pass and he chip kicked into the corner, where despite diving first and claiming the try, the touch judge was 15m behind and ruled no clear sight.
Wanganui kept up the pressure for Harding to add another three points for some breathing space at 26-17, before Trevathan found a half gap and despite his inside ball to Wright looking very suspect, play continued and Wright put hooker Marac Beckham to the posts and closed the gap to just two points.
Harding was away with an ambitious 52m penalty attempt, but Wanganui thought they had sealed it when Harding and Crowley combined to send Hudson in at the corner, where he bumped off one defender and dove over in the tackle of his opposite Brad Hemopo.
But again, the late arriving touch judge could not give Webster a clear sight on the ball, so a 5m scrum was called.
Already frayed nerves were further jangled when Harding missed a simple penalty attempt from 30m out with six minutes left, but when Tutauha survived a charging defender to snatch the drop out, reserve first-five Cody Hemi was tackled high on the next phase and this time the flags were raised for a five-point buffer with three minutes left.
South Canterbury threw everything at Wanganui from sideline to sideline in a heart-stopping final exchange, before Dabenaise jolted the ball from Moore’s hands and Wanganui kicked it into the stands to conclude a classic Mitre 10 Heartland play-off.
Wanganui 29 (Simon Dibben, Bryn Hudson tries; Nick Harding 5 pen, 2 con)
bt South Canterbury 24 (Willie Wright, Kevin Moore, Marac Beckham tries; Wright pen, 3 con)