Steelform Wanganui refused to be thrown into disarray by losing their captain and workhorse flanker Campbell Hart before kickoff as they held off two comebacks by West Coast to win 33-21 in Greymouth on Saturday.
The only South Island round robin game of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship could have become a real banana skin match for Wanganui after skipper Hart came off the plane in Hokitika Airport in some discomfort.
“He just picked up an infection from Thursday training on his knee,” said assistant coach Jason Hamlin.
Hart has taken to medical care on Friday afternoon and the doctor’s recommendation was the 1.94m forward should not play.
It is believed Hart’s knee may have initially have become infected by a scratch while playing on the artificial turf at Masterton’s Memorial Park three weeks beforehand.
“He aggravated it. It was no good on the plane flight and then it swelled up,” said Hamlin.
Hart was moved back to the reserves bench but Wanganui were effectively now playing with 21 men, as Jackson Campbell came into the starting lineup at blindside flanker while Angus Middleton covered No 8 and first-five Dane Whale took back the captaincy he last held in the Ranfurly Shield challenge to Taranaki.
Initially, it did not seem to matter as Wanganui clicked straight into gear at John Sturgeon Park, with fullback Craig Clare scoring in the fourth minute and then prop Kamipeli Latu powering over in the 11th.
“It wasn’t a game of two halves, it was a game of six or seven halves,” said Hamlin.
“We scored two nice tries and mentally we just switched off a touch.
“Their set piece was very good and starved us of the ball for the second 20 minutes of the first half.
“Whenever we had the ball we were dangerous, attacking with the width.
“But then we were getting poor ball.”
West Coast got a converted try from first-five Tom Reekie to close the gap, and then four minutes before the halftime break they levelled with a seven point penalty try – the second Wanganui have conceded this season as the infringements had been mounting against them.
With the defence that carried the team against South Canterbury now holding firm in the nearly scoreless third quarter, Wanganui needed to reassert themselves on attack and it was the acting skipper who led the way as Whale grabbed back-to-back tries in the 55th and 60th minutes.
The first came when Whale followed up a charge down by halfback Lindsay Horrocks, with Clare converting from the sideline, and then the captain got quick recycled ball and was able to hold off the tacklers long enough to be pushed over for 26-14.
But again Wanganui relaxed, as just like the penalty try, another familiar lapse from the Taranaki game resurfaced when the backs worked towards a three vs one overlap but the key pass was intercepted and West Coast flanker Brad Tauwhare ran back 50m to score with seven minutes remaining.
It was nervous times at 26-21, but Wanganui had already rushed on their remaining bench in forwards Sam Madams, Jack Yarrall, and Gabriel Hakaraia, along with utility back Ethan Robinson, and for the second game in a row the reserves provided the lift.
“We were able to hold a bit of ball, good interplay, and Angus Middleton was just carried over right at the end,” said Hamlin of the winning try in the 77th minute.
“There was a lot of good interplay. We can see a lot of things there.
“It’s working, but we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
The win was of great relief to Whale, who along with Horrocks, Latu, Viki Tofa and Simon Dibben were survivors of the Wanganui team that went down to Greymouth in 2014 and were beaten 23-17 after another home side comeback.
Whale said the team took the loss of Hart in their stride and still went out and played to their systems.
“That’s everything that rugby throws at you. That wasn’t even talked about.
“We really came out, that first 15 minutes, and worked all over them.
“But I don’t know if that was a good thing, [because] we eased back.
“I take my hat off to [West Coast]. It could have been 50 points.
“They grafted back and cut off our ball runners.”
The team flew home on Saturday evening and was counting the cost of their win as Clare and Dibben both suffered rolled ankles, and while Hamlin expected them to be fine, Latu’s ankle injury was more serious and will need a scan.
Wanganui 33 (Dane Whale 2, Craig Clare, Kamipeli Latu, Angus Middleton tries; Clare 4 con)
bt West Coast 21 (Tom Reekie, Brad Tauwhare tries, penalty try; Reekie 2 con). HT: 14-14.
By: Jared Smith