WHILE it was step one on the road to recovery, Steelform Wanganui were gift-wrapped the opportunity to get back on their feet by a woeful Ngati Porou East Coast at Cooks Gardens on Saturday.
Scoring six tries to one, including three into the howling wind in the second half, would create optimism for the remaining Pink Batts Heartland Championship, if not abundantly clear Wanganui’s winless opponent were that bad, rather than the home side playing that well.
Through dropped clearing kicks, fumbles in the forwards, the sinbinning of halfback Charlie Harrison or first-five Kahu Ward’s shallow touchfinders, this 2014 East Coast squad, which contains no imports, could not hold the ball at all in the opening quarter against a home side eager for redemption.
The biggest encouragement for Wanganui coach Jason Caskey is that key players asked to give more effort did exactly that, none better than the dynamic match from No8 Lasa Ulukuta.
Back in his favoured position after a mixed-bag at prop, Ulukuta tore East Coast to pieces up the middle, turning the clock back three seasons as he smashed through tackles and made some great pop passes in a full 80-minute contribution.
Setting him up with a couple of sweet offloads was young prop Viki Tofa, who had a very industrious match and was hard done-by to receive a yellow card from Bay of Plenty referee Brett Johnson for dangerous lifting.
Discipline or at least different interpretations continue to hinder Wanganui’s progress as Johnson whistled up an 8-5 penalty count against them in the first half, which grew to 13-5 shortly before Tofa’s departure.
Josh Hamilton took over the first-five spot and had free rein to risk quick-fire bat passes, while double tryscoring second-five Rhema Sagote also partied like it was 2012.
Among the other playmakers, halfback William Short looked a little rusty in his first start, while young fullback Zyon Hekenui’s absence will definitely be felt when he joins the NZ Heartland Under 19 team for their upcoming national tournament.
More experienced with Cooks’ strong winds than Hamilton, Hekenui took the goal kicks and landed six straight, only losing accuracy into the breeze, and also slotted into first-five when Hamilton was subbed for Dane Whale.
First on Caskey’s agenda will be deciding who stays at No8, given Bryn Hudson showed little effects of his groin injury as he came on and pumped the legs to drag two tacklers with him for Wanganui’s bonus-point try.
The call is whether Caskey moves Hudson or the in-form Ulukuta to the flank, and goes ahead with two ball-runners instead of starting with important grafters Andrew Evans and Peter Rowe.
“I’d rather be in that situation – they’re hard decisions but good decisions to make. We’ve got to get the right mix,” said Caskey.
Another to impress was winger Jaye Flaws, who really went looking for work after halftime, while Wanganui’s ball control was excellent into the wind as they hunted the vital fourth try in probably their best 10-minute period of the campaign.
“It’s always do-able, it’s easy to play into the wind [but] it’s about being accurate,” said Caskey.
“We were trying to push the message to them – but there were too many guys looking for cherries.
“[East Coast] were pretty poor.”
Captain Rowe agreed payback for the 2012 Meads Cup final loss was not a motivating factor.
“They weren’t what they were a few years ago, but neither were we.
“Lasa was good to get on the back of. It was the urgency to get with him.”
While the team has a confidence boost, both Caskey and Rowe remain uneasy as they now make the long-haul down to Greymouth to face West Coast.
Likewise winless, West Coast has still gone close in their last two matches while Wanganui has yet to find the formula for taking their best on the road.
“That’s going to be up to the individuals,” said Rowe.
“Our away trips, it’s been us [at fault]. It’s going to be the challenge to put the away trip together.”
Hamilton ran over untouched for the first try after four minutes following Ulukuta sweeping tacklers aside.
After a 5m scrum drive was stopped, Wanganui kept it tight before Hamilton made a slap pass for Sagote to dive through poor defence.
Realising the win was priority, Hekenui opted for penalty kicks in the 25th and 39th minute, book-ending Wanganui’s third try as he collected a long Hamilton cut-out pass after another Ulukuta charge off Tofa’s clever hands.
Having no luck all game, East Coast got some in the final minute as a chip kick for winger Pamona Samupo evaded a slipping Samu Kubunavanua and Samupo went over for a try.
Steelform Wanganui played Ngati Porou East Coast at Cooks Gardens on Saturday. Photos by Bevan Conley Wanganui 44 (Rhema Sagotoe 2, Josh Hamilton, Zyon Hekenui, Bryn Hudson, Clive Stowers tries; Hekenui 4 con, 2 pen) East Coast 7 (Pamona Samupo try; Kris Palmer con). HT: 27-0.
By Jared Smith – WANGANUI CHRONICLE