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Getting the groove back: Steelform Whanganui defeat Saracens

By Jared Smith

Creating space rather than running at roadblocks, control of the set piece and a little extra grit to finish the final act all added up to Steelform Whanganui’s first preseason win on Saturday.

Despite playing virtually two Hawke’s Bay Saracens teams, with a shift change of 13 players at halftime, Whanganui got the go-ahead tries they needed and then stayed out in front of their younger and overall faster opposition for a 45-27 victory at Napier’s Tremain Park.

It was the first victory over Saracens since 2019, and of great relief to new head coach Jason Hamlin with the Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship season kickoff rapidly approaching on August 20.

Even though Whanganui were still missing a couple of key players, and had a tense moment in the second half when both returning fullback Tyler Rogers-Holden (leg strain) and reserve first-five Brook Tremayne (vertigo) had to come off at the same time after hard tackles defending their red zone, the squad played with a lot more structure and stayed accurate for a longer period.

Saracens had pace to burn, but similar to Taranaki Development XV the week before, made key errors in handling and misdirected passes, especially out-wide with the tryline beckoning.

Whanganui, in contrast, tried more short passes and inside balls on second and third phases after strong carries, and found half gaps beginning to open up.

The reunited midfield pairing of Timoci (Jim) Seruwalu and Kameli Kuruyabaki were both able to step through scrambling cover defenders that had been pulled in by that work, scoring on the edges, while lock turned flanker Ben Whale really stepped up by pumping through tacklers for the visitor’s first two tries.

Whale also had a strong lineout performance, as did fellow flanker Mason Johnson and reserve Matt Ashworth – by the end of the game, Saracens were taking taps on every penalty because they no longer trusted they could win lineouts or scrums.

The latter was thanks to reserve prop Gabriel Hakaraia taking over up front when he came on, following on from hooker Roman Tutauha and prop Renato Tikoisolomone, who also did some nice short offloads, especially to his cousin and hard-working winger Alekesio Vakarorogo.

It was Vakarorogo who galvanised tiring limbs in his team by snatching an intercept to run 80m and score in the second half and pull Whanganui out to a 33-10 lead, after it looked like Saracens were going to get over the other way following multiple hard carries.

Skipper Dane Whale had more time and space to use his kicking game effectively, especially with a nifty grubber for the team’s speedster in reserve winger Peceli Malanicagi to regather and score – Whale and halfback Kahl Elers-Green having come back on to run the cutter after Rogers-Holden and Tremayne’s departures.

Facing some of his Taradale clubmates, winger Ezra Malo took the kicking tee and coolly slotted five from seven conversions, putting further scoreboard pressure on the home side.

The home side did rally with two late tries, but Whanganui’s line held up to a lot more of a battering as the scoreboard ticked away, and then they trapped the home side in their pocket for slippery reserve winger Tiari Mumby to sneak of the ruck and score on fulltime.

“Last week, we were off the mark with people who came on, and I think this week they were closer to the mark,” said Hamlin.

“They’re getting use to the pace of the game again at this level.

“There’s still lots of stuff to work on. Defensively, one-on-one tacklers were missed that we can’t afford, and by the looks of it, a lot of it was shape stuff.

“Guys were hinging in when they should of just being staying connected and occupying a space, and then we could have shutting stuff down, but we gave them avenues to attack down.

“If we can stop that stuff, we’ll go a long way towards controlling the pace of the game.”

It was nervous times when Saracens scored immediately after Malanicagi’s try to reduce the gap to 13 points with time remaining, invoking memories of the week before when Taranaki Development XV snatched the win in the last minute.

But this time, the composure was there, Whanganui having enough fuel in the tank to finish strong.

“We’re seeing growth this week around closing the game out, doing all the little things right. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better,” said Hamlin.

“Someone like Matt Ashworth comes along and really contributes in that lineout space, and that’s going to be really critical for the next couple of weeks.”

Given his father was a Whanganui captain and his older brother now holds the role, it is no surprise to see Ben Whale stepping up as a leader in the pack.

“He’s doing lots of stuff. Semi [Vodosese]’s not a big communicator but he’s a hard worker, and Jamie [Hughes]’s not a big communicator but he’s a real hard worker,” said Hamlin.

“So we need someone, an energy person that says the right things because it then puts people in the right places.

“The continuity out of that, it leads into that we have possession, attacking, doing things that we want to do better.

“You see Kameli and Jim are actually attacking spaces, not running into bodies, little things of that nature.”

Whanganui started well as the defence held Saracens and then they worked forward, with Serwalu and Vodosese doing the battering ram work.

Elers-Green did a reserve flick off the ruck for Hughes to go close, before Whale took the ball up and bumped through a low tackle to dive in.

Saracens were unperturbed and wanted to run Whanganui’s wheels off – going wide from an attacking scrum where fullback Paoraian Manuel-Harman put his winger Majella Tufuga over untouched in the corner.

They then struck again immediately as Whanganui could not collect a chip kick, with second-five Zach Simpson swiping it, before halfback Isaac Bracewell combined with lock Baden Papuni to put centre Josh McIntyre over for a great try at 10-7.

Whanganui just rolled the sleeves up and cut down the ball runners midfield, with Dane Whale securing a turnover and Rogers-Holden pinning Saracens back with a chip kick followed by two tackles to force a clearance.

From the lineout, Whanganui worked up, Elers-Green probing and finding Vakarorogo, who popped the ball to Ben Whale to get it down right on the chalk under the defender’s bodies.

Tikoisolomone gave a great offload for Rogers-Holden to nearly score before being taken into touch, but Hawke’s Bay fumbled their lineout and after two hard Whanganui carries at the line, Kuruyabaki had space to beat his man and score – Malo adding another conversion for 21-10 at halftime.

Saracens making another lineout mistake with an overthrow fell to Hughes, and after setting for the attack, Dane Whale used a miss-man pass to give Seruwalu the chance to pump through his marker and dive across.

Needing to score next, Saracens isolated Whanganui support players to get ruck penalties, with reserve No8 Iakopo Mapu looking dangerous with every carry, but in their eagerness to get wide again, they didn’t see Vakarorogo lurking and then they couldn’t chase him down in the foot race.

The desperate hosts now lifted again, their bigger ball carriers running over some tacklers, with Whanganui somehow stopping Mapu getting it down, but a long pass left the defenders in a 2 vs 1 scenario in the far corner, with second-five Zach Simpson scoring.

At 33-15 with two players coming off hurt, Whanganui looked vulnerable, and Saracens began to find some gaps out wide, as after missing out twice due to handling errors, winger Alex Philip was finally outside the cover and he scored in the corner.

But with Ben Whale and Ashworth winning lineout ball off both sides throw, Whanganui were in position and Dane Whale’s grubber bounced up just right for Malanicagi to flash through, claim it and score in the same motion.

At 40-20, Saracens still weren’t done as they immediately regathered the kickoff, and reserve fullback Jayden Rihia set up Mapu charging through dive tackles to plant the ball right under the posts, with Rihia drop-kicking the quick extras.

But that was the end of the rally, as Whanganui trapped Hawke’s Bay at the breakdown for a penalty, and from an attacking lineout, Mumby crashed into and then under a defender twice his size to get the try.

Steelform Whanganui 45 (Ben Whale 2, Kameli Kuruyabaki, Jim Seruwalu, Alekesio Vakarorogo, Peceli Malanicagi, Tiari Mumby tries; Ezra Malo 5 con) bt Hawke’s Bay Saracens 27 (Majella Tufuga, Josh McIntyre, Zach Simpson, Alex Philip, Iakopo Mapu tries; Jayden Rihia con). HT: 21-10.