There were some very encouraging signs for Steelform Wanganui's representative campaign with both a solid effort against Bay of Plenty and then a last minute victory over the Manawatu Evergreens yesterday.
The "Game of Three Halves" at Taihape's Memorial Park saw the home side play the first two 40 minute stanzas against near Mitre 10 Cup quality opposition, and they were able to hang with a much stronger and faster Bay of Plenty, capitalising on their errors to get two tries in the 24-12 loss.
Alternating some key players and hitting the Evergreens with intensity, Wanganui scored early in the second half game and were able to take advantage of Manawatu's loose passes to keep their lead until the 65th minute, when the visitors swung momentum by being able to score twice from recycling close to the tryline for 12-7 with six minutes left.
However, working forward off a couple of penalties, Wanganui showed good composure in the forwards and then the Taihape master Dane Whale, playing his last match on his home ground this year, was able to sneak through and score the matchwinner beside the posts for 14-12.
Wanganui had one setback as newly arrived Taranaki import No8 Rupeni Vakasilimi, from Stratford, had to be helped off with a bad leg injury in the first half.
Nonetheless, Waikato lock Henri Williams looks the goods after burrowing over for Wanganui's first try against the Evergreens, while several other players put their hands up.
The first half lineout was a little bit of a concern with hooker Jack Yarrall overthrowing his jumpers a couple of times, but Yarrall was solid when coming back on in the second half game for Dylan Gallien.
Wanganui's second half midfield of Peni Nabainivalu and Kaveni Dabenaise were strong on defence, wrapping up Manawatu's ball-runners to secure several key turnovers, while being adventurous on attack, with only a few final passes going astray to let them down.
Young winger Harry Symes was really put under pressure by the speed and precision of Bay of Plenty's outside backs, who didn't do intricate plays but could turn one broken tackle into a 30m gain, yet Symes showed what he could do in an open field when he out-ran all of them to score an 80m stunner.
Flanker Jackson Campbell scored the other first half try as part of an excellent two half performance, while prop Gabriel Hakaraia was determined in the second half.
Whale and centre Kameli Kuruyabaki lifted Wanganui when they came back on late against the Evergreens, with Whale cunningly getting right up in his former team mate Cody Hemi's face to unsettle the young Manawatu playmaker.
Goalkicking fullback Shandon Scott showed a calm temperament and utility back Tyler Rogers-Holden, who had a running battle with Manawatu prop Gene Syminton, were other standouts.
Having lost several key players from last year's Meads Cup winning squad, coaches Jason Caskey and Jason Hamlin were pleased with how the next tier stepped up, with a "win" over the Evergreens being a rarity.
It won't be easy to settle on a final squad of 22 for the Ranfurly Shield challenge.
"Some really good stuff, good positives there," said Caskey.
"It gives us a conundrum, and that's what we wanted."
With weather conditions fluctuating between drizzling rain and sunshine, the two games also offered different contrasts – Bay of Plenty eager to be expansive, Manawatu using more set piece.
"We let a few [first half] tries in with poor tackling," said Caskey.
"It's hard to play good teams like that without much ball."
"That's the speed of the game we don't see often.
"But we asked them for these things, and they did [deliver]."
Bay of Plenty No8 Ajay Mua was quick to impose himself on the Wanganui pack, driving off the back of a maul to score the opening try, after Wanganui prop Kampeli Latu was unlucky to join on the wrong side, otherwise he would have been covering the gap.
The pace out wide of fullback Bailey Simonsson, winger Josh Honey and second-five Matt Garland was beginning to take a toll, and when Garland slipped through two midfield tackles, he linked with those two men for Simonsson to go over for a 60m try.
But at 12-0 after 13 minutes, the floodgates did not open and Symes showed the visitors they did not have a monopoly on speed as Wanganui turned over a tap kick and halfback Lindsay Horrocks found the former national schoolboy running champion, who held off his chasers on the 80m dash.
Bay of Plenty soon worked themselves back down to Wanganui's tryline, the home team infringing while trying to stop them, and from a 5m scrum, the pack pushed with Misa controlling the ball at his feet to go under the posts.
Wanganui's backs had to absorb a lot of hard tackles trying to get some rare line breaks, so second-five Ethan Robinson tried a grubber kick and when the visitors fired the ball across to the other wing, Honey had his kick charged down and Campbell swooped to keep the home side alive at 19-12 with three minutes left.
But Bay of Plenty again attacked down the far right wing and after centre Dennon Robinson slipped his man, he fired the pass out for Simonsson to score another double on fulltime.
Far from discouraged, the rejigged Wanganui side came out roaring against the fresh Evergreens and found their defence slightly less punishing.
A Gallien burst set up Josh Fifita, who just dragged down short of the line, and Williams got to the ruck ball to force his way over for a dream 7-0 start.
Manawatu had the better of territory but threw some misguided passes, keeping the home side in the match, and it wasn't until they brought on some fresh bench players and Symes unfortunately dropped a missed touch-finder that the Evergreens could capitalise.
Working forward off the scrum win, Manawatu were stopped short, but Hemi slipped a tackle to go over and score, before striking the post with his conversion attempt.
Whale had seen enough of that and came back on to pressure Hemi on his clearances, as both teams started to get a little testy with the other.
Getting a penalty kick into the corner, Manawatu again worked close and reserve Jono Ihaka was driven over the line for what the Evergreens figured was Game, Set, and Match.
But Kuruyabaki was back on and began finding gaps up centre field, as the Evergreens, who had been pushing the offside line all match, were finally pinged by the referee.
Wanganui won the corner lineout and then got another penalty for a defender grabbing around the neck, and from the scrum win, Whale shaped to pass to the looming Kuruyabaki but then stepped and dragged Hemi over with him to score.
The wryly first-five tried to engage the referee in discussion to use up as much of the last 90 seconds left, but after Whale popped over the conversion, there was just enough time for Williams to win the kickoff and Whale to boot it out for a rare victory over their southern neighbours.
The heavy rain had set in by the start of the third half, with Bay of Plenty grinding their way to a 21-7 win over Manawatu, including a try right on fulltime.
1st half: Bay of Plenty 24 (Ajay Mua 2, Bailey Simonsson 2 tries; Kaleb Trask 2 con) bt Wanganui 12 (Harry Symes, Jackson Campbell tries; Shandon Scott con).
2nd half: Wanganui 14 (Henri Williams, Dane Whale tries; Scott con, Whale con) bt Manawatu Evergreens 12 (Cody Hemi, Jono Ihaka tries; James Tofa con).
3rd half: Bay of Plenty bt Manawatu Evergreens 21-7.