You could almost say Steelform Wanganui lost by disqualification in their Cooks Gardens rematch with Mitre 10 Heartland champions Thames Valley this afternoon.
Taking advantage of some early mistakes from the visitors, it seemed a second-tier Wanganui outfit were well on their way to revenge for last year's Meads Cup semifinal upset with an 18-3 lead in the first quarter.
But the Waikato country union, who had a noted advantage in muscle and mass up front and in the midfield, got their feet under them and began to turn the screws – as once again Wanganui's outside backs looked very brittle with a number of missed tackles.
Wanganui scrambled well on cover defence, but were undone with the rapid skill of Thames Valley's recycling and blow-overs at the breakdown.
Playing without the likes of Campbell Hart and Angus Middleton, the home should have known they needed to remain disciplined in this area, remembering how hard Masterton referee Rebecca Mahoney comes down on infringement, from when she last officiated them in the 2018 preseason.
Instead, the most damning indictment is Wanganui out-scored Thames Valley four tries to three, with visiting first-five Regan Crosland missing all the conversions on tricky angles, and yet the goal kicker was able to pop over seven match-winning penalties from in front or adjacent to the posts.
Wanganui keeps a quota target of no more than 10 penalties conceded per match, yet hands in the ruck and held ball meant they doubled it and when Thames Valley finally took the lead in the last quarter, they never looked back.
For the second week in a row, Wanganui conceded points right on halftime and fulltime.
Thames Valley's imported backs and tryscorers in second-five Danny Kayes (Bay of Plenty) and fullback Jason Laurich (Auckland) imposed themselves and looked dangerous with nearly every run, while flanker Fred Kei Fotofili and No 8 Dan Pearce stepped up in the absence of NZ Heartland XV captain Brett Ranga.
Coming on for the final quarter, brickhouse prop Silveni Topou brought the weight to screw or collapse Wanganui's scrum, leading to both a tighthead and further penalties.
Unsurprisingly, Wanganui's best was flanker Jamie Hughes, who saved one try after Laurich just ran through wingers Vereniki Tikoisolomone and Tom Symes, and also got several turnovers.
League: Mustangs prepared to be put to Northland Swords
Rugby: Three Wanganui players in starting Heartland XV lineup to play Samoa at Eden
But even Hughes was not faultless, as again Wanganui looked to work the short ball through the narrow channels in the face of physical defence, and far too many times they coughed up possession.
Prop Kamipeli Latu did some good tackling and was the most likely to get go-forward ball on the carry, while despite some notable exceptions, the lineout retention was good with locks Sam Madams, Josh Lane and flanker Samu Kubunavanua at the back.
On a lovely day, the Cooks Gardens wind was not its usual influencer, but Thames Valley were still going into a second half breeze, therefore making Wanganui's gift to Crosland of three more penalties in front completely unacceptable.
"That's an issue that needs to be cut out," said Wanganui captain Roman Tutauha.
"Piggy-backing them up the field, then slotting some 18 points.
"First up tackles, that was an issue. We shot ourselves in the foot.
"They got a big pack, let them run [and] they're going to cause a bit of trouble.
"Don't want to make excuses, had all confidence we could do the job."
Coach Jason Caskey said the gameplan was working well in the first half, but then the extra yards and attacking chances from infringements let the visitors getting a sniff.
"Ridiculous, you can't play like that.
"We let them come right back into it. Continued the trend in the second half with those three easy penalties.
"It's not lazy stuff, it's just not getting an extra step on defence. Those hands in the ruck.
"We've got to be smarter. Get out and earn some go forward."
Wanganui had a near perfect start as fullback Nick Harding, in his blazer game, slotted a difficult penalty opportunity, while Thames Valley lost starting halfback Matty Fisher to a leg injury, bringing on the experienced Ben Bonnar after only three minutes.
A dropped carry by No 8 Bryn Hudson put Thames Valley on attack position and they got the first of many penalties for Crosland to even the score.
However, Thames Valley's loose passes and fumbles were letting Wanganui keep the pressure on, with the visiting backs getting offside for Harding to again give his team the lead.
Not long afterwards, a great line run and offload by first-five Dane Whale put centre Shai Wiperi in open pastures, and the ball was spread back to the far side for Kubunavanua to send Harding charging hard at the corner for 11-3.
Hughes then snatched a loose Thames Valley ruck ball to dash deep into their half, before Wanganui put together their best attack of the game as Tikoisolomone recovered a bounce pass to set up Wiperi, who in turn offloaded for Tutauha to run across untouched.
Thames Valley needed to regain their shape, and they got the chance when flanker Matty Axtens charged down Whale's attempted grubber kick to trap the home side in their 22m.
Kayes attacked the line twice and was barely held up, and then Thames Valley spread it, with Symes coming off his wing but missing his target, as the ball was sent on for winger Matiu Abraham to dive in at the corner.
A strong hit up by Kayes was followed by Laurich ranging wide and Thames Valley received another successful penalty chance after coming back to the middle, before a booming Crosland 22m clearance and missed Wanganui lineout again left them defending their tryline, with Crosland's third penalty closing the gap to 18-14.
Mahoney was watching Thames Valley as well, and Wanganui got a penalty their way to go on attack, and after the visitors made a hash of their lineout to put the ball straight back out on their 22m, Whale saw the outside backs coming up so stepped inside and dragged the cover tackler over the tryline.
With five minutes until halftime, Wanganui should have protected their advantage, but a spill contesting a penalty lineout set up the scrum for Laurich to run through both defending wingers, until Hughes cut him down.
Thames Valley stayed on attack with another scrum, and this time Laurich dragged Tikoisolomone and halfback Tyler-Rogers Holden with him for the other backs to drive in behind and score.
The visitors then got a seemingly endless succession of penalties at scrum and ruck time to begin the second half, with Crosland gladly accepting 44th and 47th minute opportunities to tie the scores 25-25.
Topou coming on only added to their firepower, while Wanganui's replacements were recently returned players or Heartland rookies, only just stopping Crosland getting the ball down out wide.
The home side's chances on attack were then squandered with dropped short passes, while Thames Valley wouldn't give away a penalty in their own half, eventually trapping the ruck ball to kick back up field.
After driving from a 15m lineout and getting stopped just short, Kayes joined his forwards and drove low off the side to put his team in front for the first time with 14 minutes left.
Again, Thames Valley defended their half by driving straight over the ruck ball, before kicking clear onto attack, as reserve back Bobby Motuliki made a strong run before Crosland went back to a 35m penalty chance and and popped another one over.
With five minutes left, Wanganui finally controlled the ball in the face of strong tackling, with reserves Chris Breuer, Joe Edwards and Latu all taking a hit-up, and with the defenders pulled in, Whale fired a long pass to an open Wiperi to dash off and score out wide for two bonus points.
But with just over 90 seconds left, Whale and second-five Ethan Robinson made a hash of catching the kickoff, and when Thames Valley turned the scrum, they got the penalty and Crosland for the sixth time just had to kick it straight.
Thames Valley 36 (M Abraham, J Laurich, D Kayes tries; R Crosland 7 pen) bt Wanganui 30 (N Harding, R Tutauha, D Whale, S Wiperi tries; Harding 2 pen, 2 con). HT: 25-19 Wanganui.