Nothing lasts forever.
Steelform Wanganui’s undefeated Mitre 10 Heartland season ground to a halt at Cooks Gardens on Saturday, as a multitude of handling errors and a malfunctioning lineout played right into the hands of first-time Meads Cup semifinalists Thames Valley, whose powerful pack guided them to a no-frills 17-7 boilover.
After three straight Meads Cup championships and an extraordinary overall strike rate of 10 unbeaten Meads semifinals, Wanganui put themselves under the pump in the first half going into the wind, as they tried to do too much instead of showing the control which was cornerstone to their earlier wins over South and Mid Canterbury.
The semifinal took on eerie similarity to the 2016 Meads Cup final with Buller, but this time 60 minutes of uncharacteristically poor rugby could not be offset by game-saving execution down the stretch.
Facing a self-believing side who didn’t have many attacking plays in the locker but chased everything and showed peak phase retention – reaching up to 15-16 rucks without losing control – Wanganui needed to make the most of rare chances yet bombed all but a couple.
Risky offloads on half breaks and then fumbling Thames Valley’s clearing kicks after long periods on attack proved costly, especially as the backline was not getting their usual attacking opportunities off the set piece.
Despite losing prop Viki Tofa before kickoff with a hand tendon injury, Wanganui’s scrum and breakdown coverage could hold up an opposing forward pack at least 45kg heavier than them, but it was in the air where they were undone.
Early on, captain Roman Tutauha struggled to connect with 50th game lock Sam Madams and partner Henri Williams, with the ball overthrown or spilled by far-stretching hands, as Wanganui’s only success came when they threw short to returning No 8 Mike Tafili.
But Tafili blew out his shoulder early in the second half, with the layout rejigged to use flanker Campbell Hart and reserve Angus Middleton, yet opposing lock Cameron Dromgool was eagle eyed and swiped repeated Wanganui throws with his team trapped in their own half.
Dromgool was just one of the visitor’s heroes, with veteran No 8 Alex Bradley defying father time with an inspiring 80 minutes, alongside flanker Brett Ranga and 150kg try-scoring prop Sitiveni Topou, who was near impossible to stop close to the tryline.
Wanganui halfback Lindsay Horrocks played one of his great games, taking on more defence as Thames Valley kept close to the ruck, while flanker Jamie Hughes was dynamic in the first hour against much bigger men.
After a nightmare first half with dropped bombs, loose passes and letting kicks from Thames Valley’s first-five Reece Broughton get away, winger Simon Dibben and fullback Tyler Rogers-Holden came good and had glue on their fingers in the second stanza, but the damage was done at 17-0.
Second-five Penijamini Nabainivalu, desperate to win a Meads Cup after fruitless years with Buller, had an unhappy match with spilled ball and unsuccessful offloads, ultimately being pulled in the 56th minute.
Nabainivalu’s day could have turned around after he dived low and seemed to plant the ball on the tryline late in the first half, however Taranaki referee Richard Kelly and local touch-judge Aaron Conlon ruled it had rolled forward – a decision unlikely to have been retained if television match officials were available for any Heartland rugby other than Wellington games and grand finals.
But to lament Wanganui’s failings is to show disservice to Thames Valley’s courage, as despite captain Shaun Hill being knocked cold and stretchered off in the first quarter, their defence held and most importantly the time spent on the ball prevented the home side from getting anything other than one 68th minute try to first-five Craig Clare.
Needing 10 more points in as many minutes, Wanganui required a flawless finale and the right decisions to be made.
Clare seemed keen on taking a 71st minute penalty attempt from 30m and then backing themselves to get straight back for an equalising try, but Tutauha and Madams were keen on another attacking lineout.
Dromgool swiped that throw and the next one, and when Wanganui finally tried it Clare’s way with a longer 45m attempt in front with five minutes left, the season’s leading points scorer was well away.
Thames Valley worked back into Wanganui’s 22m with the clock running out, and snuffed out the last play on halfway to be mobbed by their ecstatic travelling fans, who had pounded on the advertising hoardings all match.
No one felt the loss more than a devastated Tutauha – it was clear the legacy handed to him by successive captains in Peter Rowe and Cole Baldwin was now weighing heavy.
“It’s hard to stomach at the moment, but [Thames Valley] deserve all the credit,” he said.
“They pressured our set piece, pressured our skill set.
“They played 80 minutes of rugby, we would have been lucky to play ten.”
Even after a rough first half, the team backed themselves to score three times in the second half, but without the lineout ball, that became impossible.
“That was the plan, you go into the wind first half to get the boys into the game,” said Tutauha.
“They used it to their advantage. Played clever, played with passion.
“They done their homework [on our lineout]. What we planned to do, they done to us. It starts snowballing.”
In a way, coach Jason Caskey knew Thames Valley did what Wanganui did to South Canterbury the year before in Timaru – play to your strengths and put the burden on the favourites who have not had that level of pressure in recent games.
“We were pretty average and just trying a bit too much,” Caskey said.
“We talked before the game about having the composure, not pushing the passes, but that’s what we were doing.
“We got the wobbles. You’ve got to win your lineout and we were off in that part of the game.
“Silly mistakes, really, poor ball security. You get those games and sometimes they don’t go for you.
“Give [Thames Valley] credit, they turned up on the day, and they deserved it with their passion.”
Halfway through his current two-year contract, Caskey will have a look at who is returning in 2019, with most of the squad likely still available, although the veterans like Craig Clare and Cameron Crowley may consider hanging it up.
“You’ve got to give them time to think about it and digest that.”
Thames Valley made all the early running and although Wanganui’s defence was strong, forward passes and lost ball was hurting them.
Sustained pressure after a 5m scrum, with Bradley and Hill nearly scoring, saw Topou power his way over for 7-0 in the ninth minute.
After a long delay while an unconscious Hill was tended to before being carried off, Wanganui got into good attacking position.
But more poor passes, the Nabainivalu try-that-wasn’t, and then conceeding a penalty 80m back down field after the clearing kick let Thames Valley’s forwards close enough again to do the damage.
From a lineout drive, they kept changing the maul’s angle shift the momentum and it worked a treat with hooker Glen McIntyre pushed over for 14-0.
Broughton added a long range penalty in the 38th minute and Wanganui went from thoughtful to nervous at the break.
Turning with the breeze, Wanganui would hold back Thames Valley’s only other significant raid on their tryline, after the visitors turned down a certain three points, but when camped in Thames Valley’s half they could not win most of their lineouts or would spill the ball at the crucial juncture.
Thames Valley then stayed in tight, their carries often conceeding territory in Wanganui’s big tackles, but the clock had become their 16th man.
When the visitors were penalised pulling down Madams on a 5m lineout, Wanganui wisely tried the scrum option and spread wide with Rogers-Holden just held up over the chalk.
Another scrum win and after Horrocks and reserve Tremaine Gilbert had a crack, Clare took the quick pass from his halfback and dived through the last defender in the 68th minute.
But playing a visiting team who refused to falter, Wanganui would advance no further to end their season a week earlier than they than have since 2013.
Thames Valley 17 (Sitiveni Topou, Glen McIntyre tries; Reece Broughton pen, 2 con)
bt Wanganui 7 (Craig Clare try, con). HT: 17-0.
By: Jared Smith
Jared Smith is sports editor of the Whanganui Chronicle