A few fringe players could well slip in through the door of opportunity, courtesy of spirited efforts at a wet and muddy Cooks Gardens for the Game of Three Halves representative trial this afternoon
Not all of the selected 74 players were able or willing to attend the fixture of three 40 minute matches between the sub-unions, leading to a couple of ring-in players filling out the benches, and in some cases swapping to other teams for more game time, especially in the final half.
Rangitikei-Country were probably the lightest on numbers, but had several of the bigger names who will have an impact for the Steelform Wanganui squad, especially in the play-making department.
This showed in their results, as a lightning quick start and key turnovers in the forwards led to a big 28-0 win over Metro in the first half, before coming back from 12 points down to draw even with the fresher Northern team and their impressive forward pack in the second half.
Rangitikei-Country took it out of the Northern squad, although they made a number of changes and even gave a player to Metro, who had a big bench of their own and prospered in the more scrappy, broken field nature of the final half, winning 12-0.
Without either Angus Middleton or the injured Jamie Hughes (knee) playing, the game proved a good opportunity to have a look at the other flankers on show and Rangitikei-Country's Chris Breur was very impressive on defence and cleanout in the first two halves.
Having not even initially been named in the trial, winger Pene Vui helped out Rangitikei-Country in their second half with Northern and then returned to the Metro team to score their opening try, looking good around the field.
Fullback Karl Pascoe and Ethan Robinson, shifting from midfield to first-five, also had a strong third half in the win over Northern, handling well in the wet conditions.
The versatile Kieran Hussey earns a mention in dispatches for probably playing the most overall minutes, covering hooker for Rangitikei-Country and then No 8 for Metro until suffering a leg injury in the third half.
It was all Craig Clare in the first 30 minutes of Rangitikei-Country's big win over Metro, scoring two tries and landing all four conversions, but that was enough for the incumbent New Zealand Heartland XV representative, who went to ice the legs and give other players an opportunity.
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Likewise, Northern's No 8 Campbell Hart looked to impose himself from the get go, but after picking up a limp from some hard contact in the second half, there were no undue risks taken as he was subbed and later came back on, but did not play the final half with Metro.
Although they gave a better account in the third half, there is likely to be cherry-picking of particular Metro forwards for Wanganui's Heartland Championship team, given Rangitikei-Country and Northern had more cohesion in their engine rooms.
Even though the prospect of losing a few players to the Heartland XV for the August 31 match with Samoa at Eden Park looms large, Wanganui coach Jason Caskey said he will stick to the formula of a wider squad of 27, along with three cadet-type players to develop.
Taking a squad of 30 allows training sessions to be run with a straight-forward 15 vs 15 format for full-team drills.
"Probably similar [numbers] to what we worked with last year," said Caskey.
"We got exactly what we wanted out of it. Seen some good stuff.
"The intent they showed was good.
"There's a couple of positions where we're a bit light, but that's nothing we didn't know."
Caskey will probably run one more fitness session for the wider Wanganui group, before holding off until after what will be a very tense and competitive final 4-5 weeks of the Division 1 club rugby season.
Clare showed his willingness to take on the line early against Metro, getting Rangitikei-Country hot on attack, and when they received the penalty he hit the tap kick pass at pace and ran in to score.
Out wide, Rangitikei-Country winger Tom Symes was also looking like a handful, with an early chance at a chip-and-chase going out, but with his forwards securing the turnovers, the ball came Symes way again to turn on the pace and dash in at the corner, with Clare adding the extras from the sideline.
Another turnover by the forwards set Symes free again, just being pulled down at the corner, but from two rucks Rangitikei-Country spread the ball back towards the posts and Clare was free on the outside to grab a double.
Struggling to get out of their own half, as costly turnovers and the boot of halfback Lindsay Horrocks put them back on their heels, Metro lost possession midfield, with Rangitikei-Country hacking it ahead, and while chasing fullback Sheldon Parkinga-Manhire only just missed the ball on his dive, winger Ngatu Bates leapt over the bodies to plant the ball, which Clare converted and then headed to the sideline.
Still trying to score without advantageous territory, Metro did create some chances through Robinson and No 8 Bryn Hudson, but ultimately had to jog off to the sheds pondering a clean sheet as Northern took their place.
Initially, it seemed the fresher team would prevail, especially in the back end of the half, as they controlled territory with smart kicking and strong phase work.
Flanker Tremaine Gilbert hit centre Sefo Bourke with a good pass into space, and from the recycle flanker Regan Collier scored in the corner after 16 minutes.
Looking to inspire his team, halfback Horrocks actually leapt up to bat down the kickoff to his side, as Rangitikei-Country worked forward to end up with an attacking scrum, but blew their chance by giving away a free kick and being pinned down in their half by the boots of Northern first-five Dane Whale and fullback Mitchell Millar.
Northern went to each sideline looking for the opening, and ended piled up on the tryline where halfback Kahl Elers-Green jinked his way through to score beside the posts, with Whale drop-kicking the extras.
Yet with 18 minutes left, Rangitikei-Country found their second wind, as lock Brad O'Leary snatched the kickoff, while Hudson had transferred over from Metro and made up for a lost ball by ripping back possession after the scrum.
The ball was spread wide and second-five Te Kepa Grindlay hit the cut out pass and ran through to score, with first-five Tyler Rogers-Holden quickly adding the extras.
Just four minutes later, a tap penalty was taken up by Hudson and followed by No 8 Samu Kubunavanua, then Rogers-Holden showed his pace when the ball was transferred wide to sweep into the gap and score.
As the heavy rain arrived, neither team could break the deadlock in the last 11 minutes, before Rangitikei-Country went for a well-earned rest and a rejigged Metro returned.
Northern likewise made alterations, both teams looking to give certain players more of a run at the request of the selectors, and the match stayed fairly scrappy throughout.
Fresh at hooker, Metro's Jack Yarrall caught Northern napping with a strong burst through the midfield, fending away the cover and firing his pass to the returned Vui, who stepped through one tackler and dragged another over the line after six minutes.
With an extra hard of pace on their opposition, the Metro breakouts meant Northern had to keep working back from their territory, along with a tiring Millar engaging in a kicking duel with Pascoe and Robinson.
Elers-Green had also swapped sides so Metro's ball from the set piece was more secure, and eventually Robinson saw the opening and dummied his way into the gap and fired a long pass out to fullback Ioane Aki to score in the corner, which Robinson impressively converted from touch.
With Northern now a makeshift outfit, Metro seemed the more likely of the sides to add further points in the last 15 minutes, but with the field now very muddy and everyone feeling tired, nothing further could be added.
1st Half: Rangitikei-Country 28 (C Clare 2, T Symes, N Bates tries; Clare 4 con) bt Metro 0.
2nd Half: Rangitikei-Country 12 (T Grindlay, T Rogers-Holden tries; Rogers-Holden con) drew with Northern 12 (R Collier, K Elers-Green tries; D Whale con).
3rd Half: Metro 12 (P Vui, I Aki tries; E Robinson con) bt Northern 0.