So close: Taihape survives shield challenge from Ngamatapouri.

By Jared Smith

You live by the sword and die by it too, as a reinforced and healthy Settler’s Honey Ngamatapouri came within inches of snatching the Grand Hotel Shield off Byford’s Readimix Taihape up the Waitotara Valley on Saturday.

Holding on 25-19, play finished in sight of Taihape’s tryline as their bulldozing second-five Timoci Seruwalu had smashed through desperate tacklers from his left to right, coming from beside his own goal posts, to charge into the attacking 22m.

But with three support players, all current or former Steelform Whanganui backs, ranging on both sides of him, Seruwalu tried to bust just one last defender, only to be scragged, with his offload then bouncing forward.

New fullback Peceli Malanicagi, impressive on club debut with ball in hand, swooped it up to run over beside the posts, but the whistle had gone.

On a warm afternoon up the valley without a breath of wind, Taihape had dominated the first 25 minutes of play through their virtually full-Whanganui forward pack – the side so strong the hooker Roman Tutauha came off the bench.

His Ruapehu brethren Gabriel Hakaraia started the match dominated on the fringes, being denied one try that ultimately winger Johnny Vuetibau was given credit for, then getting his own.

Returning lock Peter Travis-Hay Horton and busy No8 Ben Whale also set the tone with hit-ups and offloads, while flanker Jamie Hughes operated as a virtual midfielder off the set plays.

Asked to make a lot of cover tackles, Ngamatapouri were trapped in their own half, not having the same basic fundamentals of set piece and ruck-ball retention.

But when they can turn it on out wide, they’re as dangerous as any Tasman Tanning Premier club, as new import Josaia Bogileka scored a 50m try against the run of play in the first half to close the gap to 12-7, and then produced key passes down the left flank to set up corner-flag tries by winger Epeli Delasau and his replacement Remi Haplin.

Both teams got tired in a penalty-heavy final quarter, as Taihape’s saving grace was the control of the lineout, stifling Ngamatapouri’s set piece attack, and the steady boot of Dane Whale, who slotted two penalties to keep his team clear.

Without a breath of wind, where you kicked the ball was where it went, and Ngamatapouri’s Brook Tremayne also slotted conversions from the sideline to keep his side in touch.

As well as the heart-stopping final play, the other ultimately decisive moment came midway through the first half with Taihape in control, when Seruwalu took a pass off the deck to slash through the cover and seemed certain to score in the corner.

Taihape’s Tiari Mumby, barely half Seruwalu’s size if that, and an old antagonist as the pair locked horns the previous season, motored across from the far side and kamikaze dived right into the giant’s legs, to send him crashing down right in front of the flag.

To add further insult to wounded pride, the slippery Mumby found a way under the heap of tryline defenders after his fellow forwards were held up to give Taihape what proved a crucial 19-7 lead at halftime.

“He had a standout game, Tiari, he’s a good winger, probably the hardest guy to tackle in Whanganui, and if he gets fit, there’s no reason he can’t push for higher honours,” said Taihape coach Tom Wells.

Working hard to build a competitive side that can often be injury-prone and infringement heavy, Ngamatapouri coach Danny Tamehana was proud of his side to have held back such a strong set piece side for as long as they did, to give their speedsters the chance to all-but snatch the shield.

 “As close as that. It was a good game. Nerve-wracking at times.”

In a tighter five-team grade, Tamehana is confident they can catch an upset on at least one of 2021’s semifinalist.

“Definitely. The boys have been together for three years now, we’ve had the exception of two players come in, with Kameli [Kuruyabaki ] and Peceli, but other than that it’s the same guys.

“We’re just finally starting to play some good rugby. We were unlucky today, but that’s the way it goes.”

Wells, a victim of Taihape’s only loss to Ngamatapouri in 2017, took the same tack.

In recent seasons past, a close result against Ngamatapouri might have suggested significant flaws that Taihape needed correcting.

Not today – the home side had been at their healthiest and therefore most dangerous against the side that has to travel the longest to play them.

“No doubt they’re going to tip some teams up,” said Wells.

“I thought our phase play and our pattern was spot on. We probably didn’t respect the ball when we got down in their scoring zone, we probably turned over 4-5 pills where we could have put points on the board there.

“But that’s just a fitness thing and rustiness. The systems were bloody good, the boys retained possession as best we could when they were on our ruck quite a bit, but the ref controlled that well.

“[Ngamatapouri] are going to run 60m on a lot of teams, so we scrambled pretty, well, really.”

It was all-Taihape in the open exchanges, as following a penalty lineout and series of drives at the paint, it appeared Hakaraia had got it down, to the point the players all stopped.

But with no referee call, Johnny Vuetibau was left holding the ball, and so just ran wide of stationary defenders and team mates alike to dive across.

Hakaraia left no debate on his next opportunity as following a succession of quick recycles, he dived low through two tacklers to reach out and plant the ball in full view of everyone for 12-0 after 25 minutes.

But again, Ngamatapouri reminded the visitors they don’t need territory or repeat phases to be dangerous, as Bogileka took a pass going wide and outstripped the cover defence before dashing off to the corner, just evading fullback Luke Whale’s dive, with Tremayne raising the flags from touch with his conversion.

After Mumby stopped Seruwalu from scoring in identical circumstances, Taihape worked their way back into the attacking half off a scrum, kick, lineout and ruck penalty.

Before long, Ben Whale and Hughes were leading the charge to the tryline, and from a tap penalty, Mumby was there to score under the heap before halftime.

Ngamatapouri had not had much luck off their set piece so far, but an attacking scrum reaped reward as two long passes wide had Delasau hitting the ball at pace to flash over at the corner flag, Tremayne adding another great conversion.

Taihape kept cool, pressuring at ruck time and earning another penalty for Dane Whale to put them clear again at 24-14, before another mistake in their half opened the door for a Ngamatapouri attacking scrum.

Bogileka sent a low short pass for lock Chris Breur to collect and set up Haplin diving through the cover tackle for his first try for the club.

This time, Tremayne couldn’t add the extras, and when over-eager Ngamatapouri chasers were ahead of a clearing kick, Dane Whale again was the man to coolly slot a long range kick approaching the last 10 minutes.

But Ngamatapouri wouldn’t say die, even when Taihape forced them down to the corner pocket with the last play of the game, as from the scrum win, Seruwalu broke through to all-but deliver a fairytale finish.

Taihape 25 (J Vuetibau, G Hakaraia, T Mumby tries; D Whale 2 pen, 2 con) bt Ngamatapouri 19 (J Bogileka, E Delasau, R Haplin tries; B Tremayne 2 con). HT: 19-7.