Perennial Mitre 10 Heartland Championship powerhouse Wanganui was able to expel 12 months of frustration as they reversed the 1st vs 4th upset of 2018 by ending defending champion Thames Valley's season in the Meads Cup semifinals on Saturday.
The 20-15 victory, after an absorbing physical clash at Paeroa Domain, meant for the third straight year the last qualifier for the top four has tipped over the points table leader.
This again gifts a home final to the regular season runnerup, in this case North Otago, after they held off a late charge from Wairarapa Bush 27-25 in the other Meads semifinal in Oamaru.
While already six time Meads Cup winners, Wanganui are now after another slice of history – trying to become the first team in 14 seasons of the Heartland Championship to win the ultimate prize after losing their opening three games, as Saturday's victory extended their winning streak to six consecutive matches.
Hosting their first home Meads Cup playoff, Thames Valley initially picked up where they left off in the 36-30 win over Wanganui in Week 2 by camping on the visitors side of halfway and getting the shine from the whistle.
At Cooks Gardens in August, Regan Crosland had kicked a Heartland record-equalling seven penalties, but in Paeroa, regular first-five and the season's third highest scorer Reece Broughton had the tee.
Broughton coolly slotted four straight penalties to have the home supporters rumbling at 12-0 after 18 minutes, and it could have been more as Thames Valley's third penalty followed a cross field chip kick to wide open flanker Laulea Mau, who just couldn't quite haul it in to score his sixth try in 2019.
Having three tries disallowed on touch judge calls for a foot in touch, forward pass, and a lineout move not coming from a 5m throw, Wanganui finally hit back when halfback Lindsay Horrocks punched through a grubber kick and lightning quick winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone outstripped the cover to win the race in-goal.
Fullback Nick Harding converted for 12-7, and Wanganui were furthered buoyed when they recovered from letting the restart go out inside their 22m to clear out of their territory before halftime – avoiding this season's regular pitfall of conceeding points right on the break.
Wanganui lost industrious flanker Angus Middleton to the sinbin after a punch at his opposite Fred Kei Fotofili, but Wanganui scored 10 points in his absence to take the lead through two incredible plays.
First-five Dane Whale made a clearing kick across the midfield with the breeze and Crosland got an absolute horror bounce over his head, as Tikoisolomone sprinted from deep in his own half to overtake the turning fullback to again dive on the ball at the tryline.
His try double lifted Tikoisolomone's tally to 12 tries in nine matches, and he still has the Heartland season record of 14 in his sights.
After converting the try, Harding surprised everyone by pointing to the posts when Thames Valley infringed 5m on the attacking side of halfway, looking to use up some of the remaining time for Middleton's absence.
Under the din of the home supporter's air horns, Harding struck the ball sweet and it only starting dropping after it cleared the cross bar for a 55m stunner to silence Paeroa Domain at 17-12.
Harding then slotted a 35m penalty attempt on the angle to give his team breathing space with ten minutes to play, leaving Thames Valley in the same boat they put Wanganui 12 months before by needing to score twice with time running out.
Broughton lined up a 39m penalty attempt and completed a 100 per cent record for the goal kickers to reduce the gap to five, and then Thames Valley ploughed into Wanganui as they drove out of their 22m and into the attacking half with some 20-straight phases.
Broughton and second-five Sam McCahon had put player after player outside their defender with great offloads all match, while captain Brett Ranga was everywhere trying to find an opening.
But the Wanganui cover defence held and finally trapped the home side in the breakdown on their 45m to get the penalty to end the match.
Having an earlier 2pm kickoff, Wanganui supporters immediately starting checking the cellphones for updates from Oamaru, where it seemed North Otago had matters in hand at 27-13 in the quest for their first Meads Cup final appearance since 2013.
Having beaten Wairarapa Bush 25-11 at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium on August 30, while facing a side making a weary fourth South Island trip this season, North Otago had reason to be confident, even without injured captain Sam Sturgess.
Led by estimable veteran prop Ralph Darling, the home side struck after 15 minutes with a try from Sturgess' replacement at hooker in Hayden Tisdall, converted from the sideline by the season's leader scorer in halfback Robbie Smith.
Wairarapa Bush, who had brought a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the late Sir Brian Lochore with them for motivation, replied through a penalty by first-five Tim Priest, but North Otago kept doing the work through their front row, as prop Melikisua Kolinisau got another converted try.
The visitors stayed in touch with halfback Daryl Pickering scoring right under the posts for a converted try before halftime, which was followed by Priest's second penalty straight after the resumption of play for 14-13.
But just like in Dunedin, North Otago looked to their English winger in Howard Packman, who scored another try against Wairarapa Bush this season in the corner, and although Smith couldn't convert he would add a penalty for 22-13, being the only player who could reach 100 points in 2019 as he moved to 94.
Packman diving in again at the corner for his double and overall fourth try this season seemed to seal the deal inside the final quarter.
But having come from behind several times in 2019, Wairarapa Bush dug deep with back-to-back tries, converting the second, to set up a barnstorming finish with four minutes remaining.
Their reserves provided all those points with Sam Tufuga helping out his three brothers in the starting XV, while Brock Price got his fourth try this campaign off the bench, with Tipene Haira adding extras.
But it wasn't enough as North Otago clung on until the finish, and will now prepare to host a Wanganui side who defeated them at the same ground 27-22 back on September 28.
Historically, it will be the third time the old rivals have met in a Meads Cup final, while they have also faced off in a Lochore Cup final as well.
The two sides who will battle for the latter prize in 2019 are West Coast and South Canterbury, who overcame Poverty Bay and Buller by very different methods in Saturday's playoffs.
Top qualifier West Coast vs Poverty Bay was the only game of the four semifinals between teams who had not previously met this season, as the Coasters survived an even larger barnstorming finish than was seen in Oamaru to win 41-35 at Greymouth's John Sturgeon Park.
Lock Sam Liebezeit opened the scoring with his fifth try this season, followed by fullback Jesse Pitman-Joass, with centre Sean McClure adding the conversion for a solid opening 15 minutes.
Poverty Bay closed the gap when first-five Beaudein Waaka scored a self-converted try for third game in a row, but West Coast reasserted themselves as promising new find Jade Coleman went over in the 30th minute – the winger scoring in consecutive games after debuting the week before – with the scoreline staying at 19-7 until halftime.
West Coast began to pull away from the 50th minute onwards as lock Josh Tomlinson scored and then Coleman had his double for 29-7, and although Poverty Bay scored again, it proved only a temporary reprieve.
The home raced to 41-14 as Tomlinson also scored a double, converted by Pitman-Joass, which followed West Coast's inspirational captain and NZ Heartland XV representative Brad Tauwhare getting his name on the sheet.
Inside the last six minutes, it all looked done and dusted, but Poverty Bay ended their season as they have played most of it – with attacking defiance.
They ran in another three converted tries before fulltime, with Waaka having picked up a double in the match plus adding all five conversions for a 20 point haul.
Hooker Rikki Terekia, reserve Jake Holmes and centre Ethine Reeves all made the tryline, but the visitors had run out of time to manufacture a miracle.
No doubt pleased to have made the Lochore Cup playoffs after missing out entirely on the post-season last year, Poverty Bay will nonetheless look back on 2019 and wonder what might have been if their defence had lived up to the potency of their attack.
On seven occasions this year they scored four or more tries in a match, and yet only managed to secure three wins.
West Coast now have the dream in sight of finally winning the first NPC title in their union's history, as they have reached their third Lochore Cup final.
But standing in their way will be a ruthless South Canterbury outfit, who travelled to Westport to hammer Buller 56-24 after a dominant fourth quarter at Victoria Square.
Having lost 38-27 in the side's prior meeting in Timaru, Buller were desperately going to miss 2019's second-highest points scorer and their union's overall leading scorer in the form of the injured James Lash, arguably Heartland's greatest active player.
However, South Canterbury could point to a growing injury toll of their own, with four regulars unavailable on top of having already lost captain Nick Strachan earlier.
Far from being unmotivated after missing out on the Meads Cup playoffs for the first time in five years, South Canterbury hit the ground running as former North Otago flanker Anthony Amato got the first try of his hat-trick, on what would be an excellent afternoon for the forwards.
Buller's halfback and veteran co-captain Andrew Stephens added a reply penalty in the absence of Lash, but Amato was in again for a first half double shortly afterwards.
Gamely hanging tough for their supporters, Buller equalised through centre Iliesa Ravudra dotting down for a try in consecutive games and his fifth of the season, converted by Stephens.
But South Canterbury got key points just before the break through debuting No 8 Ryan McNab scoring, as halfback Willie Wright slotted his first successful kick.
The Cantabrians started the second stanza in the same manner as lock Regan O'Gorman added a converted try, and although Buller struck back through their winger Mitieli Kaloudigibeci also scoring in consecutive games, South Canterbury just cut loose – raising 27 points in the next 18 minutes.
Wright added a penalty to re-establish a buffer at 27-17, and then NZ Heartland XV winger Kalavini Leatigaga scored the only try from the South Canterbury backs.
Wright converted and then popped over another penalty, which was followed by Amato getting his third try and then reserve Siu Kakala dotting down for seven points at 51-17 with six minutes left.
Buller got a consolation try through No 8 Daniel Hytongue, with Ravudra taking over the goal kicking, but South Canterbury had the final say when flanker Cam Russell completed the set for tries scored by the starting loose forwards.
South Canterbury will now make the slightly shorter trip back to the West Coast for the final in Greymouth, while looking to get payback for the 27-24 loss they suffered in the final round robin game in Timaru on October 12.
Wanganui 20 (Vereniki Tikoisolomone 2 tries; Nick Harding 2 con, 2 pen) bt Thames Valley 15 (Reece Broughton 5 pen). HT: 12-7 Thames Valley.
North Otago 27 (Howard Packman 2, Hayden Tisdall, Melikisua Kolinisau tries; Robbie Smith pen, 2 con) bt Wairarapa Bush 25 (Daryl Pickering, Sam Tufuga, Brock Price tries; Tim Priest 2 pen, con, Tipene Haira con). HT: 14-10.
West Coast 41 (Jade Coleman 2, Josh Tomlinson 2, Sam Liebezeit, Jesse Pitman-Joass, Brad Tauwhare tries; Sean McClure 2 con, Pitman-Joass con) bt Poverty Bay 35 (Beaudein Waaka 2, Rikki Terekia, Jake Holmes, Ethine Reeves tries; Waaka 5 con). HT: 19-7.
South Canterbury 56 (Anthony Amato 3, Ryan McNab, Cam Russell, Regan O'Gorman, Kalavini Leatigaga, Siu Kakala tries; Willie Wright 2 pen, 5 con) bt Buller 24 (Iliesa Ravudra, Mitieli Kaloudigibeci, Daniel Hytongue tries; Andrew Stephens pen, 2 con, Ravudra con). HT: 17-10.
Meads Cup: North Otago vs Wanganui, Oamaru.
Lochore Cup: West Coast vs South Canterbury, Greymouth.