Steelform Wanganui played like they had all been together for years instead of being a relatively new-look outfit as they destroyed Wairarapa-Bush 79-7 in the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship opener on Saturday.
On a perfect dry track at Cooks Gardens, Wanganui’s remaining veterans in the forward packed stepped up their game with blindside flanker Fraser Hammond imposing his will on attack and defence for the full 80 minutes, well backed up by captain Roman Tutauha and the locking pair of Sam Madams and Sokonaia Kalou, with Madams also putting in a full workshift.
Despite last minute alterations to the backline, with Samu Kubunavanua covering fullback after Auckland import Jona Sawailau was denied the right to play following a protest over his work visa status, Wanganui’s Fijians had a licence to run with second-five Timoci Seruwalu being an absolute nightmare for Wairarapa-Bush’s midfield.
Seruwalu scored a hat trick for the second week in a row and set up several more – running with ball in one hand and even standing still to just causally swat away despairing tacklers, while being outrageous with an over-the-head pass for reserve flanker Angus Middleton to score the last try on debut.
With such momentum, first-five Craig Clare was free to run the game however he saw fit and the playmaker responded magnificently, scoring a try and being immaculate with boot after nine straight successful kicks for a 26-point haul.
His replacement Dane Whale was able to pop over four successive conversions right in front for a staggering 100 per cent success rate from 13 attempts, as Wanganui’s 10 tries guaranteed a record scoreline against the Bush.
The devastated visitors went to pieces in the second half, conceeding 49 more points as they were out-run and pushed aside, while struggling to retain lineout ball and conceeding plenty of turnovers.
All rugby fans had the sad sight of watching All Black great Piri Weepu collapsing after a suspected asthma attack not long after halftime- staying down for some time, then being helped off and tended by medics on the sideline while strapped to an EKG monitor.
The likes of first-five Tim Priest, flanker and captain Eddie Cranston and fullback Sam Monaghan are good talents, but they had little to offer, while flanker Chris Raymond created their one ray of hope on a rare mistake by Wanganui halfback Lindsay Horrocks – charging down his box kick to set up a try by winger Nikora Ewe.
Otherwise, Horrocks had what Weepu and his replacement Katia Inia lacked – total pack domination to send runners in every direction – as Wanganui’s ball control regularly reached 6-7 phases at a time.
Coach Jason Caskey could have rightly waxed lyrical about that, or the support play, or the good decision making, or the fact Wanganui did not drop one kickoff.
Instead, Caskey was most delighted with the penalty count – 9-4 in his team’s favour with Manawatu referee Tim Griffiths content that the home side was doing it clean, finishing well under the coaching staff’s goal of 10 infringements.
“The most pleasing thing was the discipline, really,” said Caskey.
“That would be a world record for us as this stage.
“That just gives the opposition no piggy backs. Everything going for you and they’re not getting the free ride.”
Caskey agreed Hammond had set the turns, as he did not take a back step from minute one to minute 80.
“I’ve known my whole life what he can bring to a team.”
The only problem currently is the fate of Sawailau, with clarification on his status possibly being known by tomorrow
“We’ll wait and see. The sooner the better,” said Caskey.
Captain Tutauha was proud of every player – from the veterans right through to Wanganui Collegiate’s debuting reserve fullback Cody Hemi, there was no weak link in the chain.
“We done a lot as a team to come together in preseason and it’s paying its dividends now.
“It’s the old name workhorses [like] Sam Madams, doing all the work in the engine room. Then the exciting backs.”
Clare opened the account with the return of 3-point penalties to Heartland, then Kubunavanua jogged a clearing kick back before exploding at the defensive line to run away from the defending forwards and find Tutauha to put Seruwalu over.
Wairarapa-Bush hit back when Raymond flew up out of no-where to batter down Horrocks’ kick and catch up with it, drawing in winger Simon Dibben to send Ewe heading to the posts.
No8 Bryn Hudson’s short pass put Seruwalu through, with Hammond carrying on, and from the tryline the ball went back out to Seruwalu to size up one defender and brush him away for 17-7.
Clare was red hot as he added another penalty, then his third from 39m out, before following another Seruwalu bash to take an inside pass and split the Wairarapa-Bush back three on a 55m sprint to the posts.
Play stopped early in the second stanza with both Weepu and winger Soli Malatai down, the latter cleaned up by a rib-jarring hit from his opposite Bruno Tuivai, and when action resumed Clare put the perfect penalty kick into the corner, and from the lineout the ball went to Seruwalu who could not be stopped that close.
A Clare inside pass to centre Kaveni Dabenaise saw him through the middle and finding Horrocks to dive over, then Seruwalu took an intercept inside his 20m and decided deep in Wairarapa-Bush’s half that he’d run far enough, stopping to wait and just fend away centre Matt McCrea until going to ground for Dabenaise to grab the pickup and waltz under the bar.
After another penalty lineout, Seruwalu held off the defence to free up Dabenaise, who in turn put reserve flanker Tremaine Gilbert over as the scoreline blew out to 58-7.
Whale spotted a gap and Gilbert hit the pass perfectly, but rather than put it down he casually chucked it to Hammond for a deserved try.
Hemi seized on his opportunity as he went out wide and put down a chip kick, with Dibben winning the four-player race to score.
Another Whale break was followed by Dabenaise and reserves Cole Baldwin and Tom Stewart, with Seruwalu having a go and just popping a no-look pass to a surprised Middleton to add his name to the sheet on fulltime.
Wanganui 79 (Timoci Seruwalu 3, Craig Clare, Lindsay Horrocks, Kaveni Dabenaise, Tremaine Gilbert, Fraser Hammond, Simon Dibben, Angus Middleton tries; Clare 3 pen, 6 con, Dane Whale 4 con)
bt Wairarapa-Bush 7 (Nikora Ewe try; Tim Priest con)