Steelform Wanganui not only broke their Mitre 10 Heartland losing streak on Saturday, they turned in a Rorke's Drift effort to do so after playing 74 minutes with 14 men to beat the undefeated West Coast 36-18 at Cooks Gardens.
A season which had been circling the drain appeared like it would be well and truly flushed in the sixth minute as Wanganui, who had scored the opening try but already given away three penalties, saw linchpin openside flanker Jamie Hughes sent off for a dangerous high tackle by Taranaki referee Cam Stone.
Hughes appeared to have timed his hit well - arriving on the shoulder of his target at the same time as the ball was offloaded to the West Coast back for a thumping tackle - but the player stayed down for several moments and Stone had a close view, going straight to the red card.
Wanganui had no specialist openside reserve and found themselves inserting second-five Troy Brown into the spot on scrums, with standout halfback Lindsay Horrocks increasing his work load around the fringes.
But instead of wilting away, Wanganui's forwards gritted their teeth and just worked that much harder at the break down and on the carries, as the home side tried less of the risky backline spreads, although one attempted cross kick attack backfired big time for West Coast flanker Brad Tauwhare to score the visitor's second try.
The achilles heels from the three losses were still there – as well as the red card, Wanganui had a 14-7 penalty count against them, while once again they conceded points right on halftime and fulltime.
However, taking away the first seven minutes of the match, the home side stayed close to their 10 penalty per game quota, while with a couple of exceptions, their ball handling off the short offloads was vastly improved.
Tellingly, from the 57th to 74th minute, Wanganui did not give away a single penalty and it is no coincidence they scored the ten points in that period which won them the game.
Backs were willing and able to do good clean-out and recovery work like extra loose forwards when the ball was spread to the fringes, while the visitors could not get the traction they needed off the set piece and began to make some howling errors, with dropped passes on either side of the halfway line.
While West Coast were feeling the toll of their three-match winning streak with six changes through injury, their key men were still there, yet they found Wanganui up to the task, as a number of standouts stopped trying to pay for the groceries with just potential.
Try-scoring prop Raymond Salu had a barnstorming match, as did Manawatu import fullback Shai Wiperi, who is beginning to look much more comfortable at the back.
The veteran forwards in hooker Roman Tutauha and captain Campbell Hart led from the front, while try-scoring centre Penijamini Nabainivalu brought his eight years of the visceral hatred which is the Buller vs West Coast rivalry onto Cooks Gardens for an inspired effort.
Wanganui got excellent service from their bench too, as try-scoring prop Kamipeli Latu and No 8 Ranato Tikoisolomone, who replaced the promising-looking Aucklander Ezra Meleisea, took the load off their tiring team mates with some strong carries.
Reserve second-five Ethan Robinson followed the example set by prop Wiremu Cottrell by getting up quickly to rattle some West Coast cages with bone-jarring tackles.
One could tell Wanganui had their blood up when first-five Dane Whale (five from seven) began slotting the kind of goal kicks on the angle which he had missed in the first half.
"I'm incredibly stoked and incredibly proud of that effort," said Hart afterwards.
"What you've got to do is respond [to set backs].
"We had to treasure the ball and we haven't been.
"It's that balance when we want guys to contest, but we are giving away penalties."
Coach Jason Caskey had a long chat to the officials at fulltime, as Wanganui will now look to go into bat for Hughes with the judiciary.
"I thought it was just a hard tackle [between] two smaller guys," Caskey said.
"He fell hard, because he got hit hard. We'll have to have a look at it, maybe on the replay it will seem different [but] we were right there.
"Our No 7 is involved in a lot of our set plays. We do five man lineouts and then he drives off.
"Today of all days, didn't have a No 7 on the bench."
Because of the disadvantage, Caskey was also forgiving on his team's penalty count, especially the handful they gave away at scrum time.
"I can't understand how they expect seven to hold up a scrum.
"It's an obvious thing, if you're going backwards, you can't [stay straight] against eight.
"If you're not dropping it to the ground...I don't like [those calls]."
Nonetheless, Caskey was delighted with the character shown by the squad, as they knew by halftime that West Coast would try to work off the set piece to get penalties for either three-pointers or kicking into the attacking corners.
"To their credit, they didn't give them [many penalties] in the second half.
"You can't ask for more, from the situation.
"The weeks up till now, we couldn't buy any luck, but today, the bounce of the ball goes our way."
Wanganui had a great start as West Coast dropped their first carry and although they got a relieving penalty, the home side stole the lineout to stay on attack.
Nabainivalu offloaded down the blindside for winger Tyler Rogers-Holden to flash in at the corner and run back towards the posts for Whale.
But Hughes departed not long after and the penalties continued to mount against Wanganui, Stone having a discussion with Hart, before centre Sean McClure popped over an easy three points in front in the 17th minute.
Whale tried a cross kick near halfway for flying winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone, which had worked before, but this time his opposite Alex Lean made a clean take and step and the West Coast outside backs ran and offloaded between them to put Tauwhare over for 10-7.
But Wanganui would not accept their fate, as Nabainivalu and Brown nearly broke clear, and although the ball was lost, the home side attacked again from the clearing lineout as Tikoisolomone got a great pass out wide to find space and then turned it back in for Salu, who for the second week surprised the cover defence with his deceptive speed to score.
Tikoisolomone ran across field on another clearance retrieval and put Nabainivalu free with a fine pass, with West Coast fullback Jesse Pitman-Joass sinbinned when he deliberately knocked down what would have been a try-scoring offload to Brown.
Choosing the lineout, Wanganui attacked through Hart and although another Coaster partially deflected his inside pass, the ball popped up for Nabainivalu to score.
Currently even with 14 vs 14, Wanganui needed to get into the sheds at 19-10 with six minutes left, but twice gave away penalties in front of the sticks, and although West Coast looked for an attacking lineout with the first one and were stopped, they let McClure close the gap with the second on the buzzer.
The visitors were eager to get on with it, staying on the field at halftime, but the Wanganui team that emerged from grandstand looked vowed and determined as rain started to fall.
Nabainivalu and Tikoisolomone continued to attack, while the latter and Brown also shut down a promising attack from West Coast's dangerman in second-five Sione Holani.
Nabainivalu then broke through from him inside his half and found Brown inside, and although defenders were converging, Brown timed his pass right for Horrocks, who smartly ran wide and dived early to slide in for a brilliant backs try, which Whale converted on a difficult angle.
Wanganui began bringing on their bench, and Ranato Tikoisolomone made a strong carry off a lineout which led to a penalty in front for Whale to take his team beyond two converted tries at 29-13.
The forwards then earned another turnover inside West Coast's half and put together multiple phases on attack, as West Coast looked desperate when they ran out from their 30m but lose the ball despite a four vs two overlap.
Wanganui made them pay as a Whale bust from the scrum was supported by Wiperi, with their team then getting a penalty to kick into the corner, and from the lineout drive, Latu dove low to make his team uncatchable at 36-13 with 11 minutes left.
The home side then conceded their first penalties of the final quarter for West Coast to go searching for a consolation try, which they did after multiple forward drives for lock Sam Liebezeit to add to his growing tally on fulltime.
Wanganui 36 (T Rogers-Holden, R Salu, P Nabainivalu, L Horrocks, K Latu tries; D Whale pen, 4 con) bt West Coast 18 (B Tauwhare, S Liebezeit tries; S McClure 2 pen, con). HT: 19-13.