There were heart flutters aplenty as Wairarapa-Bush ran hot and cold on their way to a 28-23 win over a brave Horowhenua-Kapiti in a pulsating NPC third division rugby grand final at Memorial Park, Masterton on Saturday.
In a game which was a fitting finale to the third division championship the home team held a healthy 15-3 lead at the halftime break and when they increased that advantage to 25-6 early in the second spell memories of the preliminary round such between the two teams came flooding back.
On that occasion Wairarapa-Bush won by a whopping 50-3 and such seemed their superiority going into the final 25 minutes of Saturday's match that something similar was certainly not out of the question.
But this was a very different Horowhenua-Kapiti side and rather than show the white flag as they had in that previous game they dug deep, and through a combination of their own good work and some rather lack lustre play by their opposition had the huge crowd of mostly Wairarapa-Bush supporters on the edge of their seats.
Many of them with fingernails bitten to the quick as the gap closed to just two points, 23-25..
A nervousness only heightened by an announcement that despite the clock showing full time there were still three minutes left to play.
More than enough time for Horowhenua-Kapiti to complete a stunning victory by coming up with just one more scoring effort, be it a penalty, a dropped goal or a try.
But to the huge relief of the locals it was, in fact, Wairarapa-Bush which had the last say, earning themselves a penalty almost in front of the posts right on the full time hooter.
Usually reliable goal kicker Patrick Rimene, in his 50th game for his union, had been off target through most of the game but this time he slotted the ball right between the posts, the hooter sounded and the very last third division championship had been deservedly won by a jubilant but relieved Wairarapa-Bush side.
Deservedly, not so much because of what had happened in a competition decider which went right down to the wire but because of the eight straight wins they had recorded after surprisingly being beaten by Buller in the opening round of the preliminary games.
To bounce back from that loss and win all of their remaining third division matches, head into the semi-finals as top seeds and win that and then take out the final itself made this Wairarapa-Bush side a worthy champion in every sense of the words.
And for the large number of current squad members who were part of the Wairarapa-Bush side so heavily beaten in the 2004 third division final by Poverty Bay there was a very different taste to the after-match beer on this occasion.
Saturday's game verified comments made earlier in the week by Wairarapa-Bush coach Peter Russell, who suggested that in the tenseness of a grand final it was important not to get into catch up mode.
His wish was for his team to start well and have a healthy lead going into the second spell and they did exactly that.
It was birthday boy Simanu Simanu who opened the scoring. First-five Patrick Riimene slipped a tackle well inside his own territory and wing Markia Kau made ground before Simanu had a clear gallop to the line for a spectacular try. Rimene converted to make it 7-0 .
Horowhenua-Kapiti replied with a penalty to Richard Aloe, bringing up his 100 points for the season, but then Rimene did likewise for Wairarapa-Bush to build their lead to 10-3.
Simanu made it try number two for the home team after a deft pass from Rimene left Nathan Couch in a yawning gap and he made good metreage before sending the flying Simanu on his way. Rimene missed the conversion and Wairarapa-Bush led 15-3 at the break.
It was a lead which, if anything, flattered Horowhenua-Kapiti for they had struggled to counter a concerted Wairarapa-Bush forward effort and had absolutely no answer to the pace and flair of the Wairarapa-Bush backs.
It was much of the same for the first 10 minutes of the second spell with blindside flanker Sam Henderson capitalising on good work by Nathan Couch and Steve Olds to score his Wairarapa-Bush's third try.
Again the conversion was missed but Wairarapa-Bush looked home and hosed at 20-6 and even more so when not long afterwards Simanu Simanu grabbed his hat-trick, pouncing on a loose ball, fly kicking over the Horowhenua-Kapiti line and out-sprinting the cover defence for the touch down.
Here too the conversion attempt was wide but at 25-6 the title was signed, sealed and delivered??..surely.
Watching Horowhenua-Kapiti empty their reserve bench you could have been forgiven for thinking that they too had given up the ghost but, as it happened, it was a master stroke by their astute coach Peter Kemp.
Suddenly their forwards gained a new lease of life and started to make valuable ground through the driving maul and the pick and go and a changed-round backline was just as impressive, often creating overlaps through quick movement of the ball. But even so there was only 19 minutes left to play when their skipper Craig Tansley crossed for an unconverted try and at 11-25 Wairarapa-Bush hardly looked in any danger of defeat.
That situation changed somewhat though when Horowhenua-Kapiti wing Thomas Ati Iloa was put outside the cover defence and dived for a try awarded after the television match official decided he had got the ball down before striking the corner flag.The conversion missed but at 16-25 Horowhenua-Kapiti were now tantalisingly close with still 12 minutes to go.
If that wasn't nerve-wracking enough for Wairarapa-Bush supporters it got worse when Horowhenua-Kapiti mounted a short side attack and somehow replacement winger Dan Stemp thrust his way past two or three defenders to score.Dion Nepia converted to make it 23-25 and it was all on for young and old, especially when the announcement came that despite the clock showing full time there were still three minutes left to play.
Happily for Wairarapa-Bush though it was to be them who had the last say, Hawkes Bay referee Chris Pollock, who had a fine match, awarding them a penalty when Horowhenua-Kapiti infringed in a maul and Rimene was successful from close range to advance their lead to 28-23.
While Horowhenua-Kapiti had to be commended for their spirited second half effort there is no doubt they were aided and abetted by Wairarapa-Bush lacking the fire and commitment they had shown in that opening 40 minutes.
Through most of the NPC season they had shown a tendency to go off the boil when well up on the scoreboard and this game was no exception in that regard. However, they did show composure when it mattered most and the end result was probably a fair enough indication of the merits of the two sides.
Up front Wairarapa-Bush generally had a clear edge on Horowhenua-Kapiti in the scrums with Ash Wells, who came on for the injured Joe Harwood during the first half. making every post a winner He not only scrummaged effectively but impressed with his high workrate in the rucks and mauls and the ruggedness of his defence in broken play.
The outstanding Wairarapa-Bush forward though was yet again lock Tomasi Kedarabuka. Invariably he was the one Wairarapa-Bush went to at line out time and invariably he made the catch, usually clean two handed takes and often with two Horowhenua-Kapiti jumpers in his face.
And he was typically mobile in general play, running powerfully with ball in hand and literally throwing himself into his tackles.
Kedarabuka's locking partner was skipper Mike Robinson and he made his last appearance in a Wairarapa-Bush jersey a memorable one, grafting away diligently in the tight and running strongly whenever the ball came his way.
The Wairarapa-Bush loosies were clearly superior to their Horowhenua-Kapti counterparts in the first half but were not quite as prominent in the second because they were dragged more into the tight stuff.
The tackle count of openside flanker Daimon Neal was again enormous, many of his best strikes being made around the fringes of the rucks and mauls.
Scoring three tries in a grand final will always give centre Simanu Simanu a place in Wairarapa-Bush rugby folklore but he did more than that, being just as big a menace to Horowhenua-Kapiti for his aggressive defence as he was on attack.
Halfback James Bruce impressed with the length of his passing and his willingness to confront the opposing pack in close quarter play, second-five Nathan Couch made a couple of penetrating runs and was solid on defence and while fullback Bart Viguurs had few chances to demonstrate his exceptional counter attacking abilities he still played a huge part in the victory, making two try-saving tackles and always looking sound under the high ball.
Horowhenua-Kapiti would have been gutted with the end result considering how close they came to pulling off what would have been a dramatic win but they contributed hugely to what was an enthralling match.
Coach Kemp had talked before the game about their depth of talent and the impressive strength on their reserve bench and that certainly showed in the second half.
But in the end it was Wairarapa-Bush's day and no one could begrudge them the spoils.
Third division champions 2005?. it has a nice ring about it, doesn't it?