A Mitre 10 Heartland Championship powerhouse has fallen from Meads Cup contention, a former powerhouse has risen back to prominence, and a perennial contender has completed an extraordinary late season revival as the final round robin played out on Saturday.
For the first time in eight weeks, there was no change to the makeup of the top four, who will now enter the Meads Cup semifinals, as Thames Valley, North Otago, Wairarapa Bush and Wanganui all picked up the crucial bonus point wins over sides in the bottom four, of which only Wanganui was facing an opponent still fighting to make the middle four Lochore Cup playoffs – ending neighbour Horowhenua-Kapiti's season in Levin 38-15.
While Thames Valley are defending Meads Cup champions, this is the first time they have finished top of the regular season standings, while former two-time Meads winners North Otago have qualified for their first top flight semifinal since 2013.
Wairarapa Bush are back in the top flight for the first time since 2016, while Wanganui have somehow recovered from losing their first three games to set a 2019 benchmark as the only side to win five consecutive matches, all with bonus points, to snatch fourth spot.
Wanganui's cause was aided by the upset of the round, as for the first time in five seasons, South Canterbury will not be in the Meads Cup playoffs.
After leading the competition following Week 6, South Canterbury plummeted to seventh place after West Coast completed an extraordinary turnaround in seven days to come back for a thrilling 27-24 win in Timaru.
Just like last week against Thames Valley, South Canterbury lost a comfortable 14 point lead in the second half, although it had seemed unlikely the Coasters could manufacture a similar miracle after they trailed 17-0 approaching halftime in the away game which followed their 47-7 flogging by Buller in Greymouth.
The home side took control entering the second quarter at Alpine Energy Stadium, scoring three tries from the 17th to 25th minutes.
A lineout play saw No 8 Siu Kakala force his way over in the corner, then first-five Miles Medlicott finished off the next attack, converted by halfback Willie Wright.
South Canterbury were running riot as they went straight back on the attack again through centre Shayne Anderson, recovered from the injury which saw him come off in Paeroa, setting up his fullback Zac Saunders for the try.
But like last week against Thames Valley, South Canterbury had to contend with a first half sinbinning when they lost Medlicott after the final team warning for infringements, and West Coast immediately exploited it with halfback Jarrod Ferguson going down the blindside to score his third try this year and keep hope alive right before halftime.
Hope was replaced by determination when veteran West Coast centre Sean McClure scored in the corner, although successful conversions continued to be a rare commodity at 17-10 in the 45th minute.
Back to their full XV, South Canterbury moved into the catbird seat as winger Clarence Moli ran onto Medlicott's ball to score the crucial bonus point try for 24-10, which at that stage was looking like a punched Meads Cup ticket, given Wanganui were struggling to get five points of their own against Horowhenua-Kapiti in Levin.
Instead, aspirations were dashed in the final quarter, as West Coast flanker Steve Soper went in off a tap kick to score for the third consecutive game.
New to the team, winger Jade Coleman then scored after buildup from No 8 Amenatave Tukana, with McClure finally able to add some extras with 12 minutes to play.
Former NZ Heartland Under 19 loose forward Logan Winter then got the match-winner in the dying minutes to complete the fairytale comeback, which left West Coast with home ground advantage for the Lochore Cup playoffs, although perhaps rueing the Buller mauling and a couple of other missed bonus points, as they finished a point behind Wanganui despite a superior 6-2 record.
Having made a lot of history in Heartland rugby, Wanganui are now looking to become the first side in 14 seasons to win the Meads Cup after dropping their first three games, as a strong third quarter saw them power away from Horowhenua-Kapiti for the fifth win on the trot.
Wanganui made a strong start at Levin Domain as winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone, about to play a blinder, made a powerful run into the attacking half, which was followed up by the forwards until prop Kamipeli Latu was driven over.
Veteran second-five Penijamini Nabainivalu then slashed through the defence after a lineout win and found his young midfielder partner Amos Pogia inside to take the pass one-handed and score for the second week in a row.
Sitting ninth spot, the defending Lochore Cup champions Horowhenua-Kapiti would not lie down, working forward off a couple of penalties for their former Wanganui centre Kameli Kuruyabaki to put down a grubber kick for NZ Heartland XV winger Willie Paia'aua to score.
The other winger Himiona Henare then added a penalty in front right on halftime – the seventh game this year Wanganui have given up points off the final play of the opening 40 minutes.
But only one team stood up in the next 20, as Tikoisolomone scored out wide off a set move from a penalty scrum win, then impact reserve prop Raymond Salu again proved his value by twisting over from a tryline ruck for his fifth try this season.
Wanganui then scored one of the best team tries of the year, as Horrocks snatched up the ball from the back of a Horowhenua-Kapiti scrum on his 20m, with five players then handling the ball with great offloads to put Tikoisolomone under the posts.
Horowhenua-Kapiti kept hope of at least a bonus point alive when another former Wanganui player in reserve back Cody Hemi scored from a 5m scrum win, but the visitors had the final say as Tikoisolomone again went over in the corner for the hat trick to move him up to ten tries in eight games.
Horowhenua-Kapiti falling at the final hurdle proved a welcome reprieve for eighth-place Poverty Bay, who after a strong first half in Westport were overcome to a big third quarter recovery from Buller, losing 36-26 at Victoria Square.
The long-travelling underdogs had a great start as first-five Beaudein Waaka scored a try he converted for the second straight game, and while Buller's union record points holder and 50th game capped James Lash replied with a 13th minute penalty, the Gisborne team were in again when second-five Tane McGuire crossed for 14-3, which stayed the score until the break.
Fighting to keep the other home Lochore Cup berth, Buller came out of the sheds firing as prop Jack Best scored a converted try, then only minutes later, the home side took the lead as second-five Louis Devery scored his third try of 2019.
The big 123kg hooker Anthony Ellis then got the ball down, and although Lash missed the conversion at 22-14, his other fellow milestone players were soon in on the action.
The other 50th game player in winger Mitieli Kaloudigibeci got his third try this campaign, which was followed by centre Iliesa Ravudra dotting down for his fifth, and amongst all this, Buller found time to give their magnificent servant in halfback Andrew Stephens the chance to add a conversion in his 125th game.
While Poverty Bay have had brittle defence all season, they are still potent attackers, and now trailing 36-14 they managed to score back-to-back tries in the dying minutes through Waaka getting a double, as part of his 16-point haul, along with No 8 Tamanui Hill.
Poverty Bay will now have to travel back to the Coast next weekend to play further south in Greymouth, while Buller will host the South Canterbury team who beat them 38-27 in Timaru on September 21.
There were no other potential surprises in the final round, as the top three teams signalled their Meads Cup intentions with comfortable wins over the also-rans.
Handed an extremely tough travelling draw with three South Island games, Wairarapa Bush can be justly proud to lock in third place and only just miss a home playoff by virtue of a Week 2 loss in Dunedin to North Otago, after they ended Mid Canterbury's miserable season 31-10 at Ashburton's A&P Showgrounds.
Leading 14-3 at halftime, Wairarapa Bush scored again shortly after the resumption and when they got their bonus point for 24-3, it was time for supporters to start checking the cellphones to see how the other games were going.
As has been their habit, Mid Canterbury added a late consolation second-half try from reserve forward Matt Groom, but the visitors had the last say when they dotted down in the shadow of fulltime.
Bruce Kauika Petersen was a happy hooker after grabbing two tries, while winger Logan Hebenton-Prendeville scored in consecutive games.
Brock Price got his third try this year from the bench, while second-five Raneira Petersen made it another Wairarapa Bush match where players with the same surname get five-pointers.
After playing off the bench and then on the wing and at fullback earlier in the season, veteran Tim Priest is firmly set back at his preferred first-five, adding three conversions.
Thames Valley had all but set their place at the head of the table by halftime at Te Kuiti, as they led King Country 30-3.
The home side had more of a dig in the second stanza, but not enough to prevent a 37-15 loss, no doubt wondering how their neighbours stayed so consistent given both teams made last year's Meads semifinals for the first time, but King Country have missed out on all playoffs in 2019.
One answer to that question is the Swampfoxes centre and NZ Heartland XV rep Harry Lafituanai, who dotted down for a hat trick of tries, having now scored in the last three games as part of an overall season tally of seven.
Fullback Regan Crosland made it two tries in as many games, while first-five Reece Broughton had another pinpoint day with the boot, converting all four tries and also banging over three penalties for a 17 point haul.
King Country gave their fans something to cheer for in the second half with winger Alex Thrupp also scoring in back-to-back games, while hooker Liam Rowlands got their other try.
And it was just wide-open fun at Whakarua Park in Ruatoria as North Otago locked in the other home Meads Cup semifinal after ending East Coast's brave season 61-29 in a 14-try shootout.
Like the rest of the top four sides, the Southerners started the game with urgency, and had their bonus point by halftime when they led 35-10.
East Coast, so close several times this year to that precious first Heartland victory since 2013, while now playing without injured former All Black Zac Guildford, decided if they were going down, then they were going down swinging.
Two tries closed the deficit to 42-24 at one stage of the second half, before North Otago reasserted themselves to raise the half century and finish with the second-largest score of the campaign – behind Wanganui's 67-24 win over East Coast on September 21.
However, unlike that game, at least East Coast managed their first four-try bonus point, in what was also their highest score of the campaign.
North Otago's prolific veteran prop Ralph Darling scored two tries for the second week in a row, making it six for the year, while hooker and captain Sam Sturgess also got a double, as did flanker Jacob Coughlan.
No 8 Jake Greenslade emulated Darling by getting tries in consecutive games, while reserve Kelepi Funaki crossed and halfback Robbie Smith had a profitable afternoon with a try and seven conversions.
East Coast's brilliant winger Epeli Lotawa scored his sixth try of the season, including three games in a row, with the other tries coming from second-five Tawhao Stewart, prop Hakarangi Tichborne, lock Adam Ross and flanker Hoana Te Moana.
Thames Valley will now prepare to host a Wanganui team they have beaten in consecutive games at Cooks Gardens, in what is the rematch of last year's semifinal, except the 1st vs 4th seedings are reversed.
North Otago will take on a Wairarapa Bush team making yet another South Island journey, although the game circumstances in Oamaru will be different to their last meeting, when North Otago won 25-11 in a game played on a Friday night under the big lights of Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Results, Week 8
Wairarapa Bush 31 (Bruce Kauika Petersen 2, Raneira Petersen, Logan Hebenton-Prendeville, Brock Price tries; Tim Priest 3 con) bt Mid Canterbury 10 (Matt Groom try; Corey McKay pen, con). HT: 14-3.
West Coast 27 (Jarrod Ferguson, Sean McClure, Steve Soper, Jade Coleman, Logan Winter tries; McClure con) bt South Canterbury 24 (Siu Kakala, Miles Medlicott, Zac Saunders, Clarence Moli tries; Willie Wright 2 con). HT: 17-5 South Canterbury.
Buller 36 (Jack Best, Anthony Ellis, Louis Devery, Iliesa Ravudra, Mitieli Kaloudigibeci tries; James Lash pen, 3 con, Andrew Stephens con) bt Poverty Bay 26 (Beaudein Waaka 2, Tane McGuire, Tamanui Hill tries; Waaka 3 con). HT: 14-3 Poverty Bay.
North Otago 61 (Sam Sturgess 2, Jacob Coughlan 2, Ralph Darling 2, Jake Greenslade, Kelepi Funaki, Robbie Smith tries; Smith 7 con, Anthony Arty con) bt East Coast 29 (Tawhao Stewart, Hakarangi Tichborne, Epeli Lotawa, Adam Ross, Hoana Te Moana tries; Sam Parks 2 con). HT: 35-10.
Wanganui 38 (Vereniki Tikoisolomone 3, Kamipeli Latu, Amos Pogia, Raymond Salu tries; Nick Harding 3 con, Dane Whale con) bt Horowhenua Kapiti 15 (Willie Paia'aua, Cody Hemi tries; Himiona Henare pen, con). HT: 14-8.
Thames Valley 37 (Harry Lafituanai 3, Regan Crosland tries; Reece Boughton 3 pen, 4 con) bt King Country 15 (Alex Thrupp, Liam Rowlands tries; Evaan Reihana pen, Zayn Tipping con). HT: 30-3.
Meads Cup: Thames Valley vs Wanganui; North Otago vs Wairarapa Bush.
Lochore Cup: West Coast vs Poverty Bay; Buller vs South Canterbury.