After not even making the top eight of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship last season, West Coast have continued their flying start to sit on top of the 2019 table after an important 27-21 win over Horowhenua Kapiti in Levin on Saturday.
Along with Wanganui, Horowhenua Kapiti had made the largest contribution to the NZ Heartland XV side playing Manu Samoa at Eden Park, as they were missing forwards Scott Cameron and Aaron Lahmert, along with outside backs Willie Paiaaua and Timoci Seruwalu, whereas West Coast were without hooker and captain Troy Tauwhare, along with second-five Sione Holani.
However, coming off their big 56-27 win over King Country last week, West Coast likely took a little added motivation into their first away match, as it was Horowhenua Kapiti who led an eight-union appeal to the NZ Rugby appeals council last season which saw them stripped of six competition points to miss the playoffs.
Trailing 14-7 at halftime, the visitors came back with two more tries in the second stanza, while fullback Todd Struthers continued his good kicking form by converting all three plus adding a penalty, while first-five and tryscorer Jesse Pitman-Joass popped over a crucial drop goal.
The other tryscorers were flanker Josh Tomlinson for the second game in a row, along with lock Sam Lebezeit.
Horowhenua Kapiti's tries came from halfback Kane Tamou, flanker Nathan Kendrick and fullback Himiona Henare, with their Manawatu import first-five Cody Hemi converting all three.
The second round kicked off early on Friday night under the big lights of Forsyth Barr Stadium, as North Otago took their home game with Wairarapa Bush 90 minutes down the road to Dunedin, winning 25-11 in the televised curtain raiser to the Ranfurly Shield defence for Otago against Manawatu.
Both teams were coming off good victories over South Canterbury and Wanganui respectively, with North Otago having given forwards Ralph Darling and Meli Kolinisau to the Heartland XV, while Wairarapa Bush went without skipper and lock James Goodger.
North Otago got an early chance after a kick charge down from a 5m lineout, but missed the try, as did Wairarapa Bush when they lost possession near the line, making several attacking forays from halfway, eventually getting a penalty for first-five Tipene Haira to convert.
Getting a penalty and opting for an attacking scrum, North Otago halfback Robbie Smith held up his pass as winger Howard Packman approached with two dummy runners, and the Englishman took the ball and sliced through for the converted try.
Wairarapa Bush were by no means out of the contest, as just like last week, Haira added a long range penalty on halftime to close the gap to one point.
North Otago were looking to strike first after the break, with Packman dashing away off a 30m scrum, but the chasers couldn't bring in his attacking kick right at the line.
Keeping Wairarapa Bush pinned at that end of the field, North Otago worked to the line again and second-five Samuel Tatupu smashed through a one-on-one tackle to score in the 51st minute.
Wairarapa Bush needed to strike back, as their veteran fullback Inia Katia worked into an attacking channel, but winger Tristian Flutey dropped the inside pass.
North Otago then worked forward off steady phases, with Packman again going close, and from the tryline ruck the North Otago game centenarian Lemi Masoe, returned this year from South Canterbury, went in to score for 19-6.
Again Wairarapa Bush wouldn't go away as they got in position for a cross kick into the corner and reserve back Brock Price followed up from the initial leap by the attacker to dive on the rebound ball as it fell to score.
But his team were destined to get no closer than 19-11, as North Otago trapped them in their own half, being offside on an intercept attempt and then infringing on a turnover as they tried to run it out, with Smith landing successful penalties on both occasions.
The win meant North Otago would be joined by West Coast as the only undefeated teams after two games.
There was another match played under lights on Friday at Owen Delany Park in Taupo, as King Country rebounded from their heavy loss in Greymouth with a comfortable 34-12 win over West Coast's neighbours Buller.
The home side had given prop and captain Carl Carmichael to the Heartland XV, but the long-travelling Buller were really going to miss pivotal playmaker James Lash, along with No8 Jeff Lepa.
King Country led 17-0 before Buller lock Gabba de Kock scored a reply converted try, but the hosts crossed again before the break to extend their lead.
Despite de Kock getting his double in the second half to close the gap to 29-12, King Country had it under control with their fifth try with four minutes remaining.
It was a good night for the outside backs as centre Alefosio Tapili and winger Sisa Vosaki both scored two tries.
Halfback Zayn Tipping also crossed, while first-five Evaan Reihana added three conversions and a penalty.
Saturday nearly saw the boilover of the round as East Coast, still hunting their first Heartland win since 2013, gave Mid Canterbury a fright before going down 22-15 in Ruatoria.
Mid Canterbury had only lost influential flanker Seta Koritamana to the Heartland XV, and while the perennial wooden spooners have no current reps, all eyes were on their newest acquisition in 10-test All Black, provincial rugby traveller and recent Celebrity Treasure Island contestant Zac Guildford.
It took until the 31st minute before points were raised as Mid Canterbury attacked the line on both sides ruck before No 8 and captain Jon Dampney slipped a tackle to go under the posts, converted by first-five Corey McKay, who then added a penalty right on halftime for 10-0.
East Coast fullback Zane Crooks got his team on the board with a long range penalty in the sixth minute, then after an excellent buildup and control to stay in the attacking half, Guildford fed No 8 Mitchell Crosswell to bust a tackle and get the ball back to go rush in at the corner and close the gap to 10-8.
Mid Canterbury stayed composed and after they secured a turnover at the breakdown inside East Coast's 22m, the ball was spread wide to fullback Matt McAtamney to score in the corner.
After some end-to-end play, Mid Canterbury sealed the match with six minutes left as a 5m saw them pull a midfield switch play to put reserve back Manasa Bari under the posts, converted for 22-8.
But not dying wondering, East Coast ran it out from their own 10m, throwing the ball everywhere over two phases, before winger Epeli Lotawa got through two diving tackles to run back under the posts to bring in a bonus point for the home side on fulltime.
South Canterbury rebounded from giving up the Hanan Shield to North Otago by flying up to Gisborne and coming away with a 40-29 win over Poverty Bay.
Coming off an upset win over Thames Valley and with their halfback Mario Counsell celebrating his 50th game, Poverty Bay were confident yet found themselves trailing 22-8 by halftime, the visitors doing fine without goal-kicking halfback Willie Wright and outside back Kalavini Leatigaga on Heartland XV duty.
The ball was spread for winger Brad Tunnicliffe to score a first half hat trick.
South Canterbury extended their lead to 32-8 through winger Clarence Moli scoring one of his two tries, converted by Wright's understudy Theo Davidson, who then added a penalty.
It looked like the visitors were well on track for 50 points when fullback Zac Saunders scored for 37-8 entering the final quarter.
However, the home side dug deep and ultimately got a four-try bonus point from the match with three more tries, quickly going back-to-back from the 61st minute, and then getting an automatic seven point penalty try with three minutes remaining at 37-29.
Flanker Adrian Wyrill, the unlucky NZ Heartland XV wider squad member to miss out on the Eden Park game, would get a double, while centre Ethan Reeves got the other try by player, as fullback Andrew Tauateluva added two conversions to go with his first half penalty kick.
South Canterbury had reserve Reilly Cormack get a penalty right at the end to stop Poverty Bay having a chance at a second bonus point.
And Wanganui's poor start to the season continued as ill-discipline cost them in their 36-30 loss to Thames Valley in the rematch of last year's Meads Cup semifinal in Whanganui.
Both teams were understrength as Wanganui were represented in the Heartland XV by their captain Campbell Hart, and their entire halfback to second five lineup in Lindsay Horrocks, Craig Clare, and Peni Nabainivalu, while Thames Valley lost captain Brett Ranga, hooker Glen McIntyre and promising winger Harry Lafiuanei.
The home side had a great start to lead 18-3 after 20 minutes through tries by goal kicking fullback Nick Harding in his blazer game and captain Roman Tutauha.
However, a strong build attacking runs by import backs Danny Kayes (Bay of Plenty) and Jason Laurich (Auckland) set up Thames Valley winger Matiu Abraham scoring in the far corner, before first-five Regan Crosland added another penalty kick from straight in front for 18-14.
Wanganui hit back with first-five Dane Whale going himself from close range for a fine individual try, but the home side couldn't stop a rampaging Laurich as the fullback's support players helped push him over to score right on halftime.
Wanganui just couldn't stop giving away penalties in front of their own posts, gifting Crosland two more successful chances to lock up the scores, and then reserve forward Laulea Mau dived over from a tryline ruck to give his team the lead with 20 minutes left.
Crosland extended that advantage with a sixth easy penalty kick, and although Wanganui struck back with a good try to Manawatu import centre Shai Wiperi with two minutes left, they infringed in their own half yet again in front of the posts for Crosland to land a seventh three-pointer on fulltime.
Results, Week 2
North Otago 25 (Howard Packman, Samuel Tatupu, Lemi Masoe tries; Robbie Smith 2 pen, 2 con) bt Wairarapa Bush 11 (Brock Price try; Tipene Haira 2 pen). HT: 7-6.
King Country 34 (Alefosio Tapili 2, Sisa Vosaki 2, Zayn Tipping tries; Evaan Reihana pen, 3 con) bt Buller 12 (Gabba de Kock 2 tries; Tim Manawatu con). HT: 22-7.
Mid Canterbury 22 (Jon Dampney, Matt McAtamney, Manasa Bari tries; Corey McKay 2 con, pen) bt East Coast 15 (Zac Guildford, Epeli Lotawa tries; Zane King pen, con). HT: 10-0.
West Coast 27 (Josh Tomlinson, Sam Lebezeit, Jesse Pitman-Joass tries; Todd Struthers pen, 3 con, Pitman-Joass drop goal) bt Horowhenua Kapiti 21 (Kane Tamou, Nathan Kendrick, Himiona Henare tries; Cody Hemi 3 con). HT: 14-7.
South Canterbury 40 (Brad Tunnicliffe 3, Clarence Moli 2, Zac Saunders tries; Theo Davidson pen, 2 con, Reilly Cormack pen) bt Poverty Bay 29 (Adrian Wyrill 2, Ethan Reeves tries, penalty try; Andrew Tauateluva pen, 2 con). HT: 22-8.
Thames Valley 36 (Laulea Mau, Matiu Abraham, Jason Laurich tries; Regan Crosland 7 pen) bt Wanganui 30 (Nick Harding, Roman Tutauha, Dane Whale, Shai Wiperi tries; Harding 2 con, 2 pen) HT 25-19 Wanganui.