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Wanganui Women overcome Wairarapa Bush in Cooks Gardens thriller

By Jared Smith (& Photos)

The Wanganui Women’s team signed off on a year of promising development in the local game with a thrilling 20-17 win over Wairarapa Bush in the Cooks Gardens curtain-raiser on Saturday.

After initial plans to play a 10-a-side match, the visitors brought a full squad of 20 players, allowing a XV’s fixture, and the result was a seesawing contest where both side’s looked like they had swung momentum their way, only for the other to come right back.

The early traction went to Wanganui, getting attacking scrums in Wairarapa Bush’s half, and eventually lock Sereima Vakuruivalu took the ball through the gap to dot down under the posts, although goal kicking would prove difficult for both teams.

Wanganui would ultimately have the use of all three of their Manawatu Cyclones players, with Sosoli Talawadua backing up from Friday afternoon’s Farah Palmer Cup match in Napier to come on after 20 minutes and make an impact, covering halfback.

Team mate Lavenia Nauga-Grey cleaned up one ball carrier in her own 22m with a great hit, but Wairarapa Bush still worked into attacking position with good ball recycle for second-five Brodee Walker to dive across in the 22nd minute.

Talawadua’s entrance to the game gave her team direction, with the forwards hitting the ball up, and following three phases near the tryline, the former Black Fern went over in the corner to put Wanganui ahead 10-5 at the break.

Galvanised by the likes of flanker Charlotte McCullough and halfback Shaniqka Jones, while the front-rowers did hard carries, Talawadua had another chance from a 5m ruck and threw the dummy to sneak through for what appeared the decisive lead entering the last quarter.

But Wairarapa Bush remained determined, ripping the ball off Nauga-Grey when she looked to set up a try in the corner, injuring her hand, and then Wanganui were down a player in the defensive line when McCullough hurt her face.

Standout first-five Paige Walker twisted through tacklers off the ruck to score, and Wairarapa Bush immediately worked forward again off penalties to clear their half and get back to the tryline corner, where halfback Darian Walker took a tap and forced her way over.

After neither side had looked like adding extras, Paige Walker took her difficult-angled conversion quickly and nailed it for the visitors to lead 17-15 with time ticking away.

Wanganui responded with a passage of play better executed than anything seen in the Steelform Wanganui vs King Country game the previous weekend, as five great passes into space saw the ball spread for reserve Ishyalee Pomana to run untouched into the corner with five minutes remaining.

Despite losing more players to injury, Wanganui’s composure held, with good defence to take Wairarapa Bush out on both touchlines to hang on for a thriller.

“Very proud, both teams are still learning, this is our first run for five weeks,” said coach Tama Te Patu.

“It’s great to see the girls out there. That’s what we want – just to have time on the field.

“They put it together [with last try], but it’s about doing it consistently, and that will come with practice and practice. Some of the girls I’ve just been introduced to, today.

“We probably had six of our backline away today, which probably showed with our dropping the ball, but that’s just inexperience, and that will come with another year.

“We’re happy with it, the coaches are happy – myself and Sos – who’s been the big driving force behind it, and Bridget [Belsham].

“It’s not a job when it’s something you’ve got a passion for. Hopefully they’ll all be back next year.”

Wanganui 20 (S Talawadua 2, S Vakuruivalu, I Pomana tries) bt Wairarapa Bush 17 (B Walker, P Walker, D Walker tries; P Walker con). HT: 10-5.