Finally, a first-rate quality game of rugby in Tasman Tanning Premier.
The season's halfway point bragging rights of the Paul Mitchell Cup have gone to the Grand Hotel Shield holders, as Black Bull Liquor Pirates held on for a 12-10 victory over a slightly undermanned but nonetheless strong McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu at Spriggens Park on Saturday.
In a game marked by resolute defence and solid ball control, both sides played with a focus and intensity the other six teams in Premier would struggle to match, which meant the occasional mistakes were microcosms which took on added importance in the close game.
Ruapehu had to field a young prop combination in Ezekiel Anderson and Mac-James Edmonds, with Steelform Wanganui representative Gabriel Hakaraia injured, while veteran Kim McNaught came out of retirement to play the final minutes.
While they did their part around the field, the youngsters were monstered in the scrum by Pirates well-drilled props Raymond Salu and Isaac Johnston, making Ruapehu try more attacking lineout options with standout No 8 Campbell Hart and veteran lock Andrew Evans.
Pirates coach Phillip Morris did his homework watching Ruapehu the previous weekend against Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist, as his forwards looked to negate the visitor's signature drive from the lineout by not contesting or forming a defensive maul, which under the new rules means the ball carrier is offside via the truck-and-trailer method.
It had mixed success – Ruapehu were furious when their unchecked drive was pulled up by referee Robbie Clark right on halftime, but Hart took note and responded, as in the fourth quarter he collected the throw and made sure to initially lead his pushers and reached out to contact a Pirates defender, so the other Pirates forwards were then too late to join in and stop the rolling maul try.
Otherwise, Pirates cover defence and big hits left their mark, although Ruapehu dominated territory for large chunks of the contest and were again excellent with their handling – using an up-close attacking line and popping short passes to players in space.
But they just could not crack the Pirates tryline, despite standout midfielders Troy Brown and Craig Clare making some excellent probing runs, helping to take the workload off their young forwards.
Pirates lock Emile Fanene got through a lot of work, while captain Lasa Ulukuta lined up his targets from a long way back.
Playing into a slight first half breeze, on only two occasions did Pirates make deep inroads into Ruapehu territory and they were dangerous both times despite Ruapehu's scrambling defence, as Pirates centre Vaovasa Afa forced his way through a half gap, leading to a tryline ruck where winger Elijah Ah Chong arrived and burrowed full stretch through the bodies to score.
There were top shelf performances all over the park.
Ruapehu first-five Josh Fifita wasn't afraid to take on Pirates big men, while his opposite Ricky Boniface brought all his experience to bear, with both teams showing the rest of Premier there can never be too much on-field communuication.
When Ruapehu finally cracked Pirates through Hart's try for 7-7 after 62 minutes, it seemed the weight of their momentum would get them home, but Pirates responded with a classic counterattack try.
Ulukuta went back to support fullback Junior Ainea as he claimed a Ruapehu clearing kick, and they linked with talented prospect Desmond Tyrell, the son of Pirates legend Denning Tyrell.
The young Tyrell found a gap on the far touchline, with the ball transferred to Johnston and then inside to halfback Fa'alele Iosua, who scotched over and raised his hand in front of the delighted supporters watching from the Pirates club balcony.
Ruapehu didn't panic and got the turnover inside Pirates half, once again calling on the home team to make some big tackles given Clare and Fifita nearly forced openings.
When the inevitable infringement came, Ruapehu finally considered a three-pointer right in front and Millar brought them to within two points.
The final ten minutes were intense as Pirates tried to kick clear but put the ball dead, and Ruapehu again showed great composure to work their way forward for phase after phase.
Reserve winger Sid Henare combined with Brown on several sorties, only to just be put into touch on the far side.
With time up on the clock, it seemed Ruapehu might try for a drop goal in the same manner as they won the 2017 title, with Clare on one side of the field and Millar on the other.
However, aside from one moment when halfback Kahl Elers-Green sent a pass to Millar behind the advantage line, only for the fullback to reconsider his options and run it, Ruapehu kept hunting for the try, until Pirates finally forced an error in the ruck 10m from their line.
Phillips wore a relieved smile at fulltime.
"I told them, 'you've got to mark Brown and Clare, they're the brains of the team'.
"I've been waiting for a performance like that from this group for a couple of years. That maturity was coming through.
"The defence was outstanding from both sides.
"The forwards fronted up, the set piece was good."
Ruapehu coach Daisy Alabaster was still proud of his side, and is looking forward to having a full-strength front row in two weeks time.
His squad will go into the second round in a strong position, as they will start with lower tier teams in their first few matches, while finishing the round with playoff contenders Marist and Pirates at home in Ohakune.
"The better team won. We were a bit unlucky at the end there," Alabaster said.
"Those young fellas went well, getting over the ball. We'll be right."
Grand Hotel Challenge Shield – Pirates 12 (Elijah Ah Chong, Fa'alele Iosua tries; Iosua con) bt Ruapehu 10 (Campbell Hart try; Mitchell Millar pen, con). HT: 7-0.