South Canterbury should have taken stolen Steelform Wanganui coach Jason Caskey’s team talk about discipline for their own, as it was the home side’s patience and temperament which saw them to a 21-10 win at Cooks Gardens on Saturday afternoon.
As arguably the two strongest contenders for the 2018 Meads Cup, with deference to Mid Canterbury, were meeting in the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship opener, the match was a scrappy affair as each team put the other under immense pressure with uncompromising defence in the midfield.
Neither side could really uncork their speedy backlines, with chances few-and-far between on a good day for the tight fives to impose themselves.
However, going into the wind in the first half, it was Wanganui’s patience and guile which saw them keep South Canterbury at bay, before the visitors began to stutter and caught the ire of Wellington referee Nick Hogan.
Caskey and his coaching staff will be delighted with a 17-8 penalty count in their favour, as they were able to camp on South Canterbury’s tryline, right down in the corner pocket, for most of the final 12 minutes of the half.
The Cantabrians can consider themselves lucky to have kept 15 players on the field at that point as 4-5 professional infringements in a row had Hogan down to his last warning, with Wanganui fullback Craig Clare ultimately popping over an equalising three pointer on the siren.
It all meant that the monsters in South Canterbury’s front row of veteran Matt Fetu, import Kaiolo Otutaha and fearsome hooker Pita Anae Ah Sue – easily their standout player – did not have the territorial advantage they needed to put the phases together inside Wanganui’s danger zone.
They may be smaller, but Wanganui’s pack were ferocious, as young tryscoring prop Gabriel Hakaraia proved Fetu’s equal, while lock Henri Williams and skipper Campbell Hart made some big tackles.
Flanker Jamie Hughes was absolute dynamic with the amount of turnovers he secured or penalties he forced South Canterbury to concede, minus giving away a couple himself when the little man got swamped by some of the giants and held on too long.
Turning with the wind and still getting the rub of whistle after the Cantabrians squandered good attacking chances by dropping the ball or going off their feet, Wanganui first-five Dane Whale looked to harness the wind and although he lacked accuracy with his line kicks, opposing fullback Brad Tunnicliffe was having a shocker, as he dropped passes and kicks without a defender near him in the back field.
Halfback William Wright had already missed South Canterbury’s chance for a good restart with two unsuccessful penalty attempts straight after the break when his team was still fresh going against the breeze.
Yet after Clare was lazer accurate with six priceless points of his own, Wanganui finally cracked the unbreakable defence, after a 10 phase attack led to Hakaraia forcing his way over in the far corner with his third carry in the movement.
It was the prop’s final act, while Clare also left on a high with his sideline conversion, and then the reserves came on to play their staring role.
Backup flanker Angus Middleton followed up a trysaving tackle with some powerful runs, backed by hooker Jack Yarrall, who came on for Dylan Gallien after a fairly accurate lineout throwing performance.
While Clare’s replacement Shandon Scott was offline with two goal attempts, another great turnover by Hughes set up Whale to link with midfielders Kaveni Dabenaise and Penijamini Nabainivalu — sending winger Simon Dibben away for what proved the matchwinning try in the 67th minute.
South Canterbury did reply quickly, noteworthy it came from a rare penalty lineout, when towering reserve prop Garrett Casey was driven over the tryline, but time was now against them.
Although he speaks his mind, often to detriment, lock Sam Madams did not need to say a word to South Canterbury coach Barry Matthews post match after he owned the desperate visitors when they tried to escape their half inside the last seven minutes – charging down a 22m kick, ripping back possession, and trying a clever chip kick into open space.
From the outset of the game, even when a disjointed South Canterbury could not get an acting halfback quickly to the breakdown, Wanganui refused all temptation to dive at the ball, instead setting themselves back on the defensive line, exactly as captain Hart had wished.
“We wanted to change that from last week,” he said.
“We just knew, into the wind first half, was all about defence. Maybe after 10 minutes we might get the ball.
“We defended 25 minutes. Our boys stepped up, I can’t ask for more.”
Caskey knew that while the attacking execution may not be there yet, which was as much to do with very good South Canterbury defence as anything, the side had followed instructions about keeping cool heads to the letter.
“That’s what I said at halftime – it was eleven to two penalties. That just didn’t give them opportunities.
“Really good discipline and then the guys coming off the bench added to it.
“The young guys got up and played well.
“Considering they’ve got a strong forward pack, I thought our forward pack stood up to them.”
Caskey singled out the loose forwards group of Hart, Middleton and especially Hughes.
“I think it proves, the good little man is just as good as the good big man.”
Keeping a four competition points spread on South Canterbury, who missed a bonus point, could prove crucial as Wanganui now goes on the road to face West Coast in Greymouth.
Wanganui 21 (Gabriel Hakaraia, Simon Dibben tries; Craig Clare 3 pen, con) bt South Canterbury 10 (Garrett Casey try; William Wright pen, Theo Davidson con). HT: 3-3.
It was just about as perfect an occasion for your 50th first class game as Steelform Wanganui winger Simon Dibben could have wished, scoring what proved to be the winning try in the second half.
Dibben’s try, where he was hollering at slightly hobbling second-five Penijamini Nabainavalu to send him the ball with no-one in front of him, took Wanganui out to a safe margin and insured South Canterbury’s own 50th capped player Jared Trevathen would go home unrewarded.
Now the WRFU’s development officer, the 31-year-old Dibben debuted for Wanganui in 2011 and has scored 97 first class points for the team.
He has played in four Meads Cup finals (winning three), a Lochore Cup final victory and come off the bench for three Ranfurly Shield games.
By: Jared Smith, Jared Smith