The McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu juggernaut continues to roll on, with just a few signs of chinks in the armour after their 34-27 victory over Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist today.
Regaining the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield at Rochfort Park, the seven point winning margin was quite deceptive, as the home side dominated the better part of the territory, were superior in the lineout, kicked well in general play and exercised far better control around the ruck.
Out-scoring Marist six tries to three, Ruapehu weaknesses included just a handful of errors in front of the tryline, while the normally solid discipline went away at the back end of each half – the first 40 minutes seemingly going on a little long.
Ruapehu kicker Mitchell Millar had his sights just slightly out of alignment, landing two from seven attempts, whereas Marist had all their goal opportunities in front and converted accordingly, while also receiving a penalty try in the shadow of fulltime following a stream of penalties on Ruapehu's line.
With their forwards tested as never before this campaign, while the backline had far less time and space than usual under Ruapehu's relentless pressure, Marist made plenty of mistakes but somehow clung in there for long enough to snatch the bonus point, showing much better control in the final quarter.
When Ruapehu's No 8 Campbell Hart, skipper and flanker Jamie Hughes, and the hard tackling Hakaraia brother props Gabriel and Te Uhi held sway, the visitors had no answers.
But Marist still remained dangerous, having brought back the likes of NZ Marist representative Josaia Bogileka while Steelform Wanganui winger Simon Dibben came into the starting lineup, both combining with centre Peni Nabainivalu, who took a couple of hard blows.
"It was like last week, a game of two halves," said Ruapehu co-coach Kim McNaught, working alongside Daisy Alabaster.
"The second 20 [minutes], we died off. It was a hard game to get into."
"We'll take the win. The second round is the money round."
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McNaught said referee Aaron Conlon informed him their scrum issues and repeated offsides began after Ruapehu had run on most of their young subs, who admittedly are from the reforming Senior team that has yet to play a competition game this season.
Marist, meanwhile, had the likes of representative-level players Jack Yarrall and Taione Ratu coming off their bench to help the visitors lift in the final ten minutes.
Coach Marty Bullock was encouraged by that fact.
"We're pretty happy, in a sense. We know what we've got to do [in Division 1]," he said.
"It's never easy, coming up here and playing a team that eats fence battens for lunch."
If last week's win over Black Bull Liquor Pirates had been all about Marist's backline execution, this week it was the forwards like prop Viki Tofa, lock Bradley O'Leary and No 8 Brad Graham who were being asked the question.
"It's a bit of work around the rucks and tidy up that area. They had to stand up – to come up to the volcano," said Bullock.
Early on it was one-way traffic as Ruapehu kicked smartly for Marist's far corner and poured on the pressure, keeping the visitors from reaching the advantage line and making them give away penalties.
After hitups by Hart and Gabriel Hakaraia, first-five Josh Fifita got trapped with his first attempt to spread the ball, but on the next recycle he made no mistake and zipped through on the angle to drag two tacklers over the line.
Another attacking kick from Millar had Marist trapped down deep, with Hart following on from Hakaraia's hit up to drive towards the posts, as halfback Kahl Elers-Green forced the ball down on their second attempt for 12-0 in less than 15 minutes.
Marist fullback Ashton Coates got his feet under him to start returning Ruapehu's probing kicks with some good clearances, and although Marist's passes under pressure often missed their target, they remained on attack long enough to earn consecutive penalties in front for first-five Haze Reweti to slot over.
Te Uhi Hakaraia gave away the second infringement, but redeemed when he ripped the ball back off Marist at the kickoff, and then brother Gabriel smashed his way into a gap and made a perfect pass while falling for centre Royce Trow to jog to the line untouched.
Staying inside Marist territory, Elers-Green linked to winger Cody Scarrow coming infield and back out with another great pass, and Scarrow dashed around Coates and dived at the corner flag to get the ball down mid-air before being knocked out of play.
Ruapehu had their bonus point with two minutes left till halftime, but Marist won yet another of several kickoffs and received a succession of penalties to stay on offence, as finally Nabainivalu offloaded to Dibben going under the posts, who managed to ground the ball despite Hughes' best efforts.
With their opposition closer than they should have been at 22-13, Ruapehu started the second stanza much like the first – forcing Marist into handling errors and penalties.
Following a drive from the lineout, Hughes went towards the posts from the ruck, pulling in defenders, before a quick transfer back the other way saw Te Uhi Hakaraia put into the space to dive over, with Millar converting.
But it still wasn't quite enough to be comfortable, as despite good Ruapehu chips and box kicks keeping play inside Marist's half, it became very scrappy both ways – home team errors meaning they missed tries in both corners.
Out of nowhere, Bogileka made a hard punch through the midfield and Nabainvalu was with him to score a 50m try and close the gap again at 29-20.
Ruapehu returned fire with a 20m rolling maul from a lineup, which Marist finally stopped, but then left gaps at the breakdown for Elers-Green to probe, with Gabriel Hakaraia getting the ball and offering up another great offload for second-five Troy Brown to score.
Marist could still snatch a bonus point, which they did after Ruapehu's young reserves were penalised for no-arm tackles, and then Yarrall charged through the middle to be stopped just short of the tryline.
Marist received a series of tap kicks, and finally Ratu dived over beside the posts, having contacted Conlon along the way, yet the referee opted to award a seven-point penalty try for Ruapehu's repeated offside.
Ruapehu 34 (J Fifita, K Elers-Green, R Trow, C Scarrow, T Hakaraia, T Brown tries; M Millar 2 con) bt Marist 27 (S Dibben, P Nabainivalu tries, penalty try; H Reweti 2 pen, con, A Coates con). HT: 22-13.