For only the second time in 49 years, Steelform Wanganui had to leave the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup ensconced in the Wairarapa Bush RFU offices after an inspired home side upended them 28-18 this afternoon.
The late Sir Brian Lochore must have been smiling down on Memorial Park in Masterton, as Wanganui received a shock to the system to remind them just how hard Mitre 10 Heartland Championship away games can be if you are underdone or lacking cohesion.
With a number of senior Wanganui players still working their way back from injury/illness suffered during the season, or having split focus with national duties and other commitments, they ran into a rapidly-improving home team who knew their unique artificial turf like the back of their hands.
Led by standout lock James Goodger, veteran fullback Inia Katia and the dynamic Tufuga family in brothers Max, Sam, Kirk and Ueta, Wairarapa Bush had physicality in their defence and level heads when it came time to follow up their first carries – be it swinging wide or running the angle through the channel off the ruck.
Selecting a team suited to running football, Wanganui had been eager to see what wingers Vereniki Tikoisolomone and Tom Symes could do on the carpet-like surface.
But both of them would have to concede superiority to their opposites and tryscorers Tristan Flutey and Logan Hebenton-Prendeville.
The prospect of a harsh landing on the artificial turf means defenders often instinctively go high to wrap up the ball carrier, and the home speedsters exploited those hesitations with excellent steps and palm-offs to score Wairarapa Bush's first and third tries, making mugs of Wanganui's outside backs on both occasions.
Throw in cool Wairarapa Bush first-five Tipene Haira slotting five kicks from seven attempts, including penalties just before halftime and fulltime, and there was no way back for Wanganui.
Only down 15-8 at halftime as they turned to harness the influential breeze, Wanganui had the territory and possession to rattle off multiple tries, so long as they played mistake free rugby.
But instead, come fulltime and captain Campbell Hart could only rattle off the key moments like an unwanted grocery list – lost ball, penalties, a forward pass, dead kick, lost lineouts, and missed tackles.
Ref column: Getting the head around the scrum
NZ Heartland rugby: Whanganui's famous five
"We didn't have enough composure at our end of the field."
What makes it tougher is that Hart, halfback Lindsay Horrocks, first-five Craig Clare and second-five Peni Nabainivalu cannot exert any influence to right the ship this week ahead of the first home game with Meads Cup champions Thames Valley.
They are required to be in camp with the NZ Heartland XV in Auckland by midday Monday.
The skipper could only hope he will be receiving good news on his cellphone after fulltime at Eden Park against Manu Samoa.
"It will be a hard way back if we drop two."
Coach Jason Caskey said the "not ideal" situation gets worse as they will also be missing hard working flanker Angus Middleton and reserve back Troy Brown.
It was obvious conditioning played a part as hooker Roman Tutauha (recent kidney infection) and lock Peter Travis Hay-Horton (no preseason rep games) looked very sore when they came off, while Clare limped out of the match at halftime.
"How we wanted to play was to get front foot ball and hit some tip passes coming out of the channels," said Caskey.
Instead, the carriers got wrapped up in those narrow channels and despite a speedy track, they could not get as many yards as they wanted in the face of committed defence.
On such a fast turf and when facing the wind, every turnover or infringement meant at least a 30m turnaround each time, and no Heartland team can absorb those numbers and still steal a victory.
"To be fair, they wanted it more than us today and they deserved to win," said Caskey.
"The unforced errors, silly errors we shouldn't do, and you get punished for them. Silly penalties.
"These fellas, we knew they would be fired up, with the passing of Brian Lochore."
After the sides observed a moment's silence for the first Heartland match since the passing of Sir Brian, Wairarapa Bush were quickly into their business and to no surprise it was Goodger.
The lock charged down an early Tyler Rogers-Holden clearing kick and then making the hit on his opposite Sam Madams that led to a penalty at the breakdown.
Wairarapa tapped and ran, with Haira slicing through an open gap and finding Flutey inside, who just stepped through Tikoisolomone and fended away from Rogers-Holden for 7-0 inside of five minutes.
A Middleton charge through the middle saw him put down a grubber for Symes, but Katia saved the try and Wanganui had to work forward again from halfway after the long clearance with the wind.
Battering down a Wanganui pass saw the visitors get an attacking scrum on the 5m, and when they had penalty advantage off the next phase, Clare snapped a quick drop goal from in front in the 15th minute.
Wanganui getting isolated at the ruck when carrying out of their 22m let Wairarapa kick for a 6m lineout, and the Tufuga-led pack made the visitors pay.
Wanganui infringed when stopping the first drive off a No 8 Kirk Tufuga take, but the second time the home team worked it perfectly, with brother prop Sam holding it at the back.
Although the defenders initially held him up, the second shunt saw Tufuga get it down for 12-3.
Hawira missed the conversion and then an ambitious 43m penalty attempt, as Wanganui began to get some traction - Tikoisolomone having a rare chance to use his speed, but some wild passes let the home side get clear.
It took an offside penalty for Wanganui to kick their way to a 12m lineout, and the forwards got payback on their opposites as they drove a perfect rolling maul, with defenders too high to stop them, to put Tutauha over the line for 12-8.
Wanganui could have lived with that scoreline with 90 seconds left until the break and their turn with the wind, but Middleton got trapped on the kickoff carry and Hawira added three expensive points.
With Dane Whale coming on for Clare, Wanganui had a perfect restart as a booming clearance put them on attack and Wairarapa Bush bombed their lineout throw, allowing Horrocks to snap it up and step through the tryline defenders to score - Whale taking his time to land the equalising conversion.
But Wairarapa Bush absorbed further pressure, with any one of the four Tufuga's available to make a strong carry, and the home side got penalty advantage from a turned scrum on attack, so Hawira could boot them back into the lead in the 52nd minute.
Just six minutes later, the decisive moment came as Katia kept looking to probe down Wanganui's right-hand blindside and he found Hebenton-Prendeville.
The winger propped brilliantly off both shoulders to step through Symes, avoid a diving Middleton, stand-up Tikoisolomone and hold off reserve fullback Nick Harding to dash under the posts.
Down by 10 entering the final quarter, Wanganui got onto attack but a steady stream of errors prevented them capitalising on their pressure, until Horrocks atoned for some wild passes by trapping reserve halfback Bryan Arnold off the back of a scrum.
Whale added a quick penalty in front for 25-18 with seven minutes and change left.
But the desperate visitors never got back out of their half as reserve Samu Kubunavanua was penalised at the kickoff and the home team attacked, until they lost the ball in front of the tryline.
With five minutes left and 100m to go, Wanganui cleared to their 22m, but Madams was pinged trying to stop yet another Wairarapa Bush lineout drive, and after serious consultation with his forwards, Hawira backed himself and calmly nailed the difficult match-winning penalty into the breeze.
Wairarapa Bush 28 (T Flutey, S Tufuga, L Hebenton-Prendeville tries; T Hawira 3 pen, 2 con) bt Wanganui 18 (R Tutauha, L Horrocks tries; D Whale pen, con, C Clare dg). HT: 15-8.