By Jared Smith (Photos by Merrilyn George)
On a football league-style points table, where only two Bunnings Heartland sides will qualify for the Meads Cup playoff, you need to get on top early and stay there.
To this, Steelform Whanganui made a perfect start to their 2021 campaign where after a few jitters with ball in hand after the lockdown delays, they soon opened up on a hapless Poverty Bay for a 65-12 hammering at Cooks Gardens on Saturday.
It was a shame Level 2 meant only 100 or so spectators in separate bubbles were able to watch, because Whanganui turned their exciting backline loose in an offensive exhibition, scoring nine tries to two including nearly a point-a-minute in the second half.
Once they were fully alight after the early turnovers, double try-scoring centre Kameli Kuruyabaki, No8 Semi Vodosese, and halfback Lindsay Horrocks were keen to have a crack in most circumstances, while returning fullback Te Rangatira Waitokia has added another attacking bow to the quiver with his perfect sense of timing for entering the backline and creating openings.
There is now such depth in the backline that even cast-iron veteran Craig Clare started off the bench, with the No10 jumper going to Dane Whale for his 50th first-class game in a memorable occasion for the family, as younger brother Ben played his first-class Whanganui debut.
The elder Whale made it an occasion to remember as he and Horrocks took control of proceedings with some probing kicks catching the Poverty Bay wingers out early, while Whale slotted seven goals from eight attempts before making way for Clare, only to return at halfback for the final minutes when Horrocks retired.
Up front, try-scoring skipper Campbell Hart showed no rust despite only 20 minutes of rugby in nearly two months – making some surging bursts, swamping tackles, and holding ascendancy in the lineout.
Hooker Dylan Gallien was everywhere, while props Viki Tofa and Hadlee Hay-Horton were full of running, particularly in the second half where Whanganui really found a groove putting the ball through the hands.
Hart had to smile that even the veterans like Horrocks and reserve hooker Roman Tutauha were striding out and charging at full clip.
“When the conditions allow, you know? These days, you want to set the exciting players free, and it was good to see everyone running free.
“It was a bit of a frustrating start, we did score early but we were our own worst enemies early on – dropped balls and not looking after the ruck; probably turned over 3-4 rucks early.
“Definitely need to work on that and put a bit more emphasis on those areas – can’t lose the ball and possession like that.”
Whanganui’s discipline was solid, especially given Poverty Bay prefer a helter-skelter style of play, as the home side had an 11-9 penalty count in their favour, while the visitors finished with 14-men after reserve back Penikolo Latu was sinbinned for a high tackle.
“We got lots of goals around penalties, it’s a good positive area. Other goal’s are around defence, good to look at those and see how they’re tracking,” said Hart.
“Lineout, our job’s to set a platform so our exciting backs can go, and I think we did that at times today.”
Due to Level 2, the teams had to forego the traditional aftermatch function for a junior footy-style sit down on the field, where Hart singled out Whale for special praise.
“You can’t ask for a better team man than Dane-o, he does whatever is asked of him, attitude’s always positive.
“It’s a real mark of a person how you respond to different situations, and Dane-o’s always done the best for this jersey.”
Thinking about a tight points table where every bonus and a healthy for-against record could prove crucial for staying in the Top 2, coach Jason Caskey was delighted his squad kept up the intensity right to the 80th minute.
“That’s what we kept talking all the way through – even when you start getting away a little bit [on the scoreboard], it’s working really hard on our D, because at the end of the year without a semi, it could all come down to that points differential.
“It becomes really vital that we don’t concede needless points. Holding these guys to 12 is a good result because they often score 30.
“We were a little bit rusty early but once we got going there was some great skills at times.
“A couple of times we just a little flat and a forward pass here and there, but just through the hands I thought we got a hell of a lot better as we went along.
“We’re happy with that, and it’s always good to get that first one under the belt and get a bonus point, which is ultimately what we wanted.”
Turnovers aside, Whanganui were into their work early as Whale fed Vodosese, who scythed through a yawning gap and offloaded to flanker Jamie Hughes, who got his pass around the last defender for second-five Josiah Bogileka to run under the posts in the 4th minute.
Poverty Bay’s wingers had looked a little suspect under kick pressure and Whanganui exploited it in the 12th minute as Horrocks kicked ahead and winger Joeli Rauca raced through to rip back possession to offload to Hart, who was stopped right on the line, with Vodosese collecting it up to drive across at the corner flag, Whale converting from touch.
In good form with the boot, Whale heeded Hart’s call to take a penalty in the 19th minute for 17-0, before Poverty Bay finally struck back six minutes later when dangerous fullback Andrew Tauatevalu, who got a double in this game last year, attacked the defensive line and broke through, being dragged down short but reaching out to score.
Whanganui struck back shortly afterwards with another team try, as Waitokia claimed a clearing kick and fed Kuruyabaki, who hit the defenders and offloaded to Bogileka, finding Horrocks inside who dragged two tacklers to the tryline and rolled over the top of the heap to force the ball.
Another Whale penalty in the 39th minute had the home side in good shape at 27-5 at halftime.
Waitokia, Whale and Rauca then dealt the ball between themselves down the touchline to bring Whanganui back on attack after the resumption, and from a ruck in front of the posts, Bogileka gave Hart the perfect short ball to cross untouched.
Now searching for a four-try bonus point at best, Poverty Bay got a penalty to take an attacking lineout, and after the drive was stopped, lock Dan Law went blindside and shrugged through a tackle to score.
That was their final highlight of the game, as Rauca leapt high to win the kickoff, Kuruyabaki went blindside to run over his tackler, and after Gallien and Waitokia probed back to the middle of the field, Tofa collected a ruck ball and found defenders inadvertently sweeping past him, so he just took off to score under the posts.
Whale took a quick tap after a being tackled by offside defenders near the posts, and after Hay-Horton went close to scoring, the ball was put through the hands for winger Alekesio Vakarorogo to finally get a good pass and jog in untouched.
Desperate, Poverty Bay tried to attack out of their own half and Kuruyabaki spied the opportunity a mile back to snatch an intercept and run back 40m under the bar for 53-12 in the 60th minute.
Lock Josh Lane produced a great offload to Tutauha to set up another attack, as the ball was spread wide to Vakarorogo, who was hit high by Latu.
Nonetheless, Whanganui kept possession and transferred to the other sideline as a floating Waitokia pass found reserve winger Peceli Malanicagi, who in his first touch for his Heartland debut also ran in untouched to score.
After Hay-Horton, reserve flanker Cade Robinson and Hart made big inroads, Kuruyabaki wrapped up proceedings by running the angle and dummying his way through to score on fulltime.
Whangani 65 (Kameli Kuruyabaki 2, Josaia Bogileka, Semi Vodosese, Lindsay Horrocks, Campbell Hart, Viki Tofa, Alekesio Vakarorogo, Peceli Malanicagi tries; Dane Whale 2 pen, 5 con, C Clare 2 con) bt Poverty Bay 12 (Andrew Tauatevalu, Dan Law tries; Kelvin Smith con). HT: 27-5.