Win and you're in.
Steelform Wanganui became the only team in the 2019 Mitre 10 Heartland Championship to register five consecutive bonus point victories, and with it, confirm an away Meads Cup semifinal, after a gritty 38-15 win over a desperate Horowhenua-Kapiti at a warm Levin Domain today.
Showing a comfort-level in their support play and offloads, although a few of the more ambitious long passes came unstuck against a pressing home side with some significant backline talent, Wanganui settled into a groove early on for a 14-0 advantage.
However, the old chestnut of unforced mistakes and penalities inside their defending half let Horowhenua-Kapiti draw closer, scoring points on halftime for 14-8.
Having been hitting the heavy pads for 15 minutes before kickoff, Horowhenua-Kapiti were looking to get up through their big men in the forward pack, with towering locks and big front rowers, leaving Wanganui a touch nervous as results were coming in from other games involving Meads semifinal contenders around the country.
As expected, the top three teams on the table were all well up of their respective bottom three opponents, while at the crucial match in Timaru, South Canterbury had swiftly run up three tries over visitors West Coast in their hunt for a bonus point victory to try and snatch fourth place.
Instead, Wanganui took it out of their hands, to such a degree it didn't even matter when the Coasters staged a miraculous comeback to win the match down south in the dying minutes.
The die was cast through Wanganui tries in the 43rd and 52nd minutes, and then a breathtaking 80m stunner which started when halfback Lindsay Horrocks snatched the opposition scrum ball right from under his former understudy Kane Tamou.
Horrocks set off a movement where first-five Dane Whale, flanker Angus Middleton, winger Shai Wiperi and second-five Peniijamini Nabainivalu all made angled runs and safe passes with patience and poise – allowing red hot winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone to run under the posts for 31-8.
The home side made one more foray into attacking territory for their former Wanganui reserve back Cody Hemi to score off a scrum win, entering the final quarter.
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But unlike last year at Cooks Gardens, the last 20 minutes belonged to Wanganui, scrappy though it was, with Tikoisolomone running in his hattrick to stay in position to finish 2019 as the top try-scorer in the competition.
The young winger will probably be more delighted that his previously questionable defence stood up to the test, as earlier he made a try-saving tackle on a stepping Tamou only a metre from the line.
Coming off the bench, try-scoring reserve prop Raymond Salu and reserve No 8 Samu Kubunavanua carried on the outstanding work by the other try-scoring prop Kamipeli Latu, who did the full 80 minutes, and No 8 Ezra Meleisea.
But the true stars for Wanganui were their Waverley men in Horrocks and flanker Angus Middleton – with Middleton coming into the starting XV at the last minute for an unwell Jamie Hughes.
Horrocks and Middleton were everywhere and anywhere they were needed, the latter dominating the tackle count while the former carried the load around the breakdown on both defence and offence, making some telling breaks.
Both Border men held up ball carriers to force turnovers.
"Lindsay – I don't know who's going to be the NZ Heartland XV halfback, but if he's not the best No 9 in the comp, I'll go hee [haw]," said assistant coach Jason Hamlin.
"I thought it was a stop-start game and that's the game Angus revels in.
"We challenged him to change his mindset on a few things
"He was actually moving bodies - that opened it up for us."
"If anything, we're still a bit too eager. We talked about those five steps to get us to a possible Meads semifinal.
"Those first two tries, that's the blueprint for us. Maintain possession, don't lose the 50-50.
"But there's still a lot of angst in it, and far from the perfect match."
Hamlin was most pleased with the 80m try, where cool heads saw players run themselves into the right support lines so that the passes were perfect hand-to-hand offloads, instead of speculative chucks.
"That would not have happened at the start of the season.
"Vereniki has been outstanding for us in terms of a finisher. That x-factor."
Other Wanganui standouts were lock Sam Madams and prop Gabriel Hakaraia for the first 50-60 minutes.
Best of the home side were second-five Jaxon Tagavaitau, giant lock Tuitonga Katoa, prop David McErlean, flanker Logan Broughton, and busy goal-kicking winger Himiona Henare.
"Initially, we lowered our standards to their level," said Wanganui captain Campbell Hart about the second quarter.
"We talked about that at halftime, and I'm really happy with [the lift].
"The big turnaround is getting the right combinations and solidifying those combinations, and it's become a real strength.
"Paeroa [semifinal]– that will do, we'll take it."
After a scrappy start where Horowhenua-Kapiti looked to press the issue but made a couple of handling errors, a Madams lineout steal saw Tikoisolomone break through midfield, with the break carried on by hooker Roman Tutauha and Hakaraia offloading expertly.
Getting a 5m scrum in the left corner, the Wanganui forwards controlled the ball back towards the posts, plus one spread through the backs, and then Latu was driven over, with fullback Nick Harding adding the extras.
Some hard tackles from lock Josh Lane and Meleisea kept Horowhenua-Kapiti behind the advantage line, leading to a shallow clearance on their 22m, and from the lineout, Nabainivalu slashed through a gap with just a defender's arm clinging to him, before finding centre Amos Pogia back inside to collect the pass one-handed and score.
Going better than a point a minute, Wanganui stuttered as they lost the kickoff and gave away a couple of penalties – Horowhenua-Kapiti also forgoing three point attempts – and despite some very good defence from all three Wanganui loose forwards, another former team mate in centre Kameli Kuruyabaki spied a chance and punched through a grubber kick for winger Willie Paia'aua to dive in-goal for 14-5.
Lost ball prevented Wanganui getting a reply try, and then the bugbear of their season returned as a penalty right in front of the sticks let Henare add three points – making it the seventh match Wanganui have conceded off the final play of the first half.
Jogging back out knowing their Meads Cup hopes were on the line, Wanganui hit the home side straight from the resumption – as they won back the kickoff and Horrocks made a charging 25m run through tacklers, being caught high.
Taking the penalty scrum, Wanganui worked a play down the blindside and Tikoisolomone went over untouched in the far corner.
Surviving a couple of Horowhenua-Kapiti breakout attacks when they swooped on spilled passes, which led head coach Jason Caskey to get on the radio and tell them to cut out the long balls, Wanganui got an attacking penalty lineout, with Madams working Wiperi into the tryline corner, before Latu had a crack and then Salu twisted through to score the priceless bonus point try.
Four minutes later, Tamou hesitated to claim the ball from a 20m scrum in front of Horrocks, who then snatched it the moment the No 8's foot came off and fed Whale, who looked to Middleton in support, with Wiperi taking a wide pass and finding Nabainivalu had the vision to cut outside of him.
Free down the sideline, Nabainivalu saw Tikoisolomone ranging back inside and no defender had the gas to stop him scoring Wanganui's team try of the season.
The winger then followed up his second try by saving five points with a last ditch tackle, after Tamou had sparked a raid from inside his own half.
Yet the home side stayed in the 22m thanks to a couple of penalties, and from a switch play at the scrum, Hemi ran in the try to keep hope alive at 31-15 in the 64th minute.
But Wanganui had worked too hard in their last four games to falter now, and pinned the home side back in their own half – getting an attacking scrum when the home side fumbled an intercept attempt.
They worked the same play as earlier, although this time Tikoisolomone was further out, but it didn't matter as he beat his markers cold to raise his hat trick with eight minutes left.
Wanganui 38 (V Tikoisolomone 3, K Latu, A Pogia, R Salu tries; N Harding 3 con, D Whale con) bt Horowhenua-Kapiti 15 (W Paia'aua, C Hemi tries; H Henare pen, con). HT: 14-8.