It was a little harder than a typical day at the beach, but Steelform Wanganui recorded their seventh straight win and raised their biggest score of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship season with a 56-10 win over East Coast on Saturday.
With coach Jason Caskey taking a squad consisting of younger players and understudies to the unfamiliar ground of Tologa Bay, it took a little while for Wanganui to switch on, struggling for lineout cohesion and giving away a few penalties.
East Coast showed some surprising enterprise in their mobile locks and loose forwards, who were looking to do the work of the backline by spreading wide or open running while looking for the offload pass.
If a couple of wild kick-and-chase chances had bounced better or not been fumbled when the catcher met the final Wanganui defender, they may have scored more than one try.
Given first-five Craig Clare is in such sublime form, again keeping a perfect sheet with seven straight successful kicks, Wanganui looked to take over with long clearances into corner lineouts.
Yet, having finally got into the Heartland team and promoted ahead of Campbell Hart and Henri Williams, debuting lock Jack Hodges couldn’t quite latch onto all the throws of returning skipper Roman Tutauha.
Nonetheless, Hodges scored a good support try and was just about to get another down on the chalk when East Coast blatantly infringed on the rolling maul, which led to referee Richard Kelly instead jogging to the posts for an automatic seven-point penalty try.
Having often given up their spots to other players this campaign, Wanganui’s best were try-scoring prop Viki Tofa and flanker Angus Middleton.
Tofa had been struggling with a stomach bug but it never showed in his barn-storming effort, at one point taking five straight carries in the same movement, while Middleton was everywhere with tackles that hurt, recovery of numerous fumbles, and repeated attacking punches through the midfield.
No 8 Bryn Hudson looked enthusiastic for his return game with some strong carries, while it was apparent just how important Hart has been to Wanganui’s success this year as he literally took over the game when he came on for the final quarter – securing the lineout and busting through tiring defence to create two tries.
After getting back to 7-7 in the first quarter, East Coast only woke Wanganui up, and they dropped off far too many one vs one tackles to remain competitive.
Tutauha said the warm hospitality over on the East Coast, playing at the tiny country ground by the ocean, could have made everything seem too causal, which is what the home side wanted.
“That’s the trap of the place, the boys got to realise we’re over here for a job.
“[East Coast] are a team that came out with nothing to lose.
“There’s more dimensions to their forwards than we think. Took us a while to realise that.
“Individual performance, I was a bit off. Got to fine-tune a few things.”
Having not only packed down with him in Wanganui’s dominant scrum, but having seen how much he struggled with food and retaining fluids before the match, Tutauha marvelled at Tofa’s effort.
“He’s a real team man. Nothing can hold him back.”
Caskey singled out Middleton for stepping up for 80 minutes, especially when his team put themselves under pressure after scoring a straightforward opening try.
“Angus was pretty outstanding, very impressed with how he played.
“It was always one of those days and a real experience for the boys, especially those that hadn’t had it before.
“They put us under some pressure and we were far from flawless. But it gave some guys an opportunity.”
“I thought Jack played well, got the 80 minutes and scored a try on debut.
“It’s hard to come into a team and be seamless. It was always going to be a little disjointed with timing.”
The first penalty kick into the corner saw Wanganui off the mark as the spread to winger Cameron Crowley, and although the ball was nearly lost at the breakdown, halfback Josh Fifita saved it and fed centre Kaveni Dabenaise, with East Coast not reading his inside pass at all as fullback Tyler Rogers-Holden breezed through to score.
Thinking two moves ahead, Wanganui went light for numbers at the breakdown and East Coast capitalised as they contested hard to get a couple of penalties, letting them stay in the attacking half, despite visiting winger Tom Symes breaking free and just being pushed out at the tryline flag after a 60m dash.
Missed lineout throws saw East Coast clear their dangerzone, and then the forwards put the ball through the hands as lock Hone Haerewa was lurking out wide, powering through a tackle and dashing into the corner.
Wanganui looked thoughtful as first-five Ngarangi Haerewa nailed the sideline conversion for 7-7 after 23 minutes.
They responded well as second-five Kameli Kuruyabaki broke the line with Middleton in support, before Tofa went looking for the line, and although the next pass was loose, Crowley showed his 50 games worth of experience as he recovered and fed a pass through two tacklers in the same motion for Hodges to dive over.
Hudson, Tofa, Rogers-Holden, Kuruyabaki and Middleton then sparked an excellent breakout from their own 22m, and after getting a penalty, Wanganui again went sideline and drove off lock Sam Madams for Tofa to score for the third straight game.
Annoyed at missing out earlier and the try scored down his channel, Symes followed up a probing run by Clare to bulldoze through Ngarangi Haerewa and this time beat the cover defence to the corner, with Clare again raising the flags from the sideline.
Needing to break the momentum, East Coast got Haerewa to take a long penalty kick, which he delivered for 28-10 at halftime.
The East Coast forwards just fell away in the face of another Wanganui pack drive from the lineout, with Hodges set to score until the defenders came back and tried to drag the maul down from the sides, leading to the penalty try in the 45th minute.
It wasn’t until the 66th minute that Wanganui scored again as East Coast tried their best and the match became scrappy, but with more regular starters now coming off the bench, the visitors regained their shape.
Hart claimed a lineout and after Clare had a crack, he took the ruck ball and powered over.
A midfield penalty put Wanganui right back down in that far corner, and this time Kuruyabaki made the first carry, before Hart drove on with two defenders clinging to him, feeding Middleton to dive over.
The reserve front-rowers then cooked up a clever try from a 30m lineout, as hooker Jack Yarrall threw short to prop Gabriel Hakaraia, who popped it back to him.
Together the two young men dealt the ball back in forth while shrugging off tacklers for Yarrall to score in the corner, with Clare completing an exceptional kicking performance with another sideline conversion.
Wanganui 56 (Tyler Rogers-Holden, Jack Hodges, Viki Tofa, Tom Symes, Campbell Hart, Angus Middleton, Jack Yarrall tries, penalty try; Craig Clare 7 con)
bt East Coast 10 (Hone Haerewa try; Ngarangi Haerewa pen, con). HT: 28-10.