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Whanganui regains the Pinetree Log in prime time against All Black’s skipper

By Jared Smith

The mystique went away very quickly and when Steelform Whanganui clicked into gear it was obvious that even a King Country with the ultimate ringer was still a winless side.

The Sir Colin Meads Memorial Trophy was regained and Whanganui remains in position to attack the rest of the Bunnings Heartland top four during the second half of the round robin, after Saturday’s comfortable 48-13 win at Owen Delany Park.

After some of the stutters which have crept into their last two matches – kickoff fumbles, throwing risky final passes on attack and conceding infringements, Whanganui put it together to score seven tries, after the home side looked vulnerable down the left hand flank early, and then got out-worked through the breakdown in the final quarter.

Whanganui enjoyed complete air superiority – stealing or ending up with fumbles from six of King Country’s throw-ins, which directly led to two tries.

With a potentially large television audience watching on Sky TV, All Black captain Sam Cane showed some good hustle on cover defence and in tight for his comeback game, but he was never going to fix the defensive lapses elsewhere.

Cane’s departure in the 57th minute, coupled with back-to-back Whanganui tries to take the score from 20-13 to 34-13, saw a noticeable exodus from the stands and around the ground with local punters heading to the parking lot or the bar.

Giving the 74-test veteran’s presence, it is all the noteworthy to say that Jamie Hughes, followed closely by captain Campbell Hart, were the best loose forwards on the paddock – Hughes work-rate being absolutely sensational.

Hooker Roman Tutuaha and lock Josh Lane can be proud of their shift, while try-scoring No8 Semi Vodosese might not resemble Sir Colin in appearance, but his one-handed running bursts were shades of Pinetree.

Fullback Craig Clare and winger Alekesio Vakarorogo worked well in connection down the far touch, while first-five Dane Whale had full control in the final quarter to find his runners with smooth passes.

In a proud moment, Ezra Malo came on for his Whanganui debut – less than four-and-a-half years since father Ace Malo played his last Whanganui game, with Ezra’s younger brother Cruz wearing that jersey.

Best of the locals was unquestionably second-five Sio Tapili, using the breeze for some fine line kicks in the first half, and always trying to manufacture opportunities without momentum in the second.

Losing reserve loose forward Leveson Gower to the sinbin late in the piece killed any chance of salvaging a bonus point.

Looking a massive remaining four games against opponents all still in contention for the silverware, Whanganui coach Jason Caskey was pleased that the side is slowly running itself into form.

“Probably starts have been hurting us a little bit.

“Four or five penalties, and I think we gave away four in the first 7-8 minutes.

“It’s exactly what we talked about before the game; it lets them off the hook and puts all the pressure on us.

“The intensity was there though. The warm-up was really good and the intensity was there, so you work around those things and once you settle down.

“Once we could hold a few phases, we looked a hell of a lot better.”

While there had been a little bit of eye-rolling about his inclusion during the week, the side had not over-thought the ‘Cane factor’ and played to their game-plan.

“That’s what we said – things don’t change that much, one guy can’t fix all the problems, especially [stopping] the backline,” said Caskey.

“The opportunities that were there from last week were still going to be there, so you just might have to be a little bit smarter to find them.”

Hart felt the same, while humbly accepting plaudits for the performance of himself and Hughes.

“We were just doing our job out there and trying to hustle – we knew there was someone good in the breakdown so we had to get there and drop extra hard.

“There was more motivation for us than [facing Cane]. We lost the ‘Log’ last year and we haven’t played the best rugby, so we just really focused on us and dropping our penalty count and avoiding turnovers.

“We were into the wind, so you expect [King Country] to do well in that half and to score a couple of tries.

“We haven’t played the best rugby the last couple of weeks, but we could only take a step forward today, and we achieved that.”

Right from a spilled kickoff, King Country had two penalty chances and Tapili nailed the second in the seventh minute.

After a couple of spills with the line in sight, Whanganui put it together from an attacking penalty lineout, where busy halfback Lindsay Horrocks took a run, before Hart worked with Hughes, and then Clare sent the ball to winger Peceli Malanicagi, who showed great strength to plant it through two tacklers.

A horror King Country lineout throw inside their 22m fell to Vodosese, who couldn’t believe his luck but wound up quick to bust through the dive tackles and score.

Second-five Ethan Robinson converted, and then added a penalty shortly after to leave his side comfortable at 15-3.

Whanganui will not be happy to concede a succession of penalties for not releasing at the breakdown and getting offside, with Tapili closing the gap to nine points at the break.

The visitors were straight back into it after halftime as King Country made a shallow clearance, and Clare got the ball wide to Vodosese, whose flick offload had the right bounce for lock Kieran Hussey to score.

King Country held their ground and uncorked a great team try when Whanganui were lax getting across in cover from a long attacking kick, as Tapili, winger Sisa Vosaki, and No8 Reeve Satherley got away, and then winger Baven Brown Jnr broke tackles to put lock Bradly Jeffries under the posts.

But that was the end of the fight-back, as Whanganui penalty saw Hart call an attacking scrum, and after Vodosese and Robinson had a crack, Horrocks pulled a lovely second-man play to use Hughes as dummy runner and put Whale over under the posts.

King Country fumbled another lineout to let Hussey and Lane charge to the tryline, before Whale worked with centre Kameli Kuruyabaki to put Vakarorogo across, which Robinson converted from touch.

The hosts trying to run out from their tryline granted Kuruyabaki a gift to snatch the pass and waltz across, and then right on fulltime, Whanganui got a succession of penalties to swing on attack for Whale to send reserve Timoci Seruwalu bulldozing across.

Whanganui 48 (Peceli Malanicagi, Semi Vodosese, Kieran Hussey, Dane Whale, Alekesio Vakarorogo, Kameli Kuruyabaki, Timoci Seruwalu tries; Ethan Robinson pen, 3 con, Dane Whale 2 con) bt King Country 13 (Bradly Jeffries try; Sio Tapili 2 pen, con). HT: 15-6.

2021 Heartland Championship Table
Pos.#
Team
P
W
L
D
Bpts
F
A
+/-
Pts
1
South Canterbury
6
6
0
0
6
276
83
+193
30
2
Thames Valley
6
6
0
0
4
214
98
+116
28
3
Steelform Whanganui
6
4
2
0
4
206
110
+96
20
4
North Otago
6
4
2
0
4
172
148
+24
20
5
Mid Canterbury
6
4
2
0
4
182
163
+19
20
6
Horowhenua-Kapiti
6
4
2
0
3
144
149
-05
18
7
Poverty Bay
6
3
3
0
5
201
159
+42
17
8
West Coast
6
2
4
0
5
140
159
-19
12
9
Ngāti Porou East Coast
6
1
5
0
6
177
211
-34
10
10
Wairarapa Bush
6
2
4
0
2
106
183
-77
10
11
Buller
6
0
6
0
2
109
276
-167
02
12
King Country
6
0
6
0
1
93
281
-188
01
*TIEBREAKERS:
1. Head to head result.
2. Points differential.
3. Tries scored.
4. Points scored.
5. Coin toss.