Steelform Wanganui stands alone atop the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship points table after their fifth straight shut out in the 36-19 win over King Country in a warm Te Kuiti on Saturday.
Now on the down hill stretch towards the Meads Cup semifinals and with a points spread over their chasers, the sums are looking good for Wanganui, but it comes with the knowledge any good team could keep them honest, which is what the home side did after a typically gutsy second half revival at Rugby Park.
In the first match for the Pinetree Log played on Sir Colin Meads's old stomping ground, Wanganui were clinical and calculating in the opening quarter, expertly raiding down the blindside while utilising their kicking advantage to be scoring nearly a point a minute at 24-0.
Fullback Craig Clare had the ball on a string as he put King Country right back onto their tryline in both the left and right hand corners, while halfback Lindsay Horrocks looked to work with dominating No 8 Michael Tafili and winger Harry Symes, who was just growing in confidence.
Both men scored tries and Symes was on his way to a man of the match performance before fate took a cruel turn midway through the second half when last ditch defence on Wanganui's tryline saw him down dislocate his shoulder, likely ending the season then and there.
Clare's ankle flaring up had already seen him leave the field and when hard working lock Sam Madams was sinbinned for infringing to stop a try in the same attack where Symes was injured, Wanganui were put back on their heels until the final few minutes of the game.
Still searching for the first bonus point against Wanganui in the competition, King Country finished short with three tries as second-five Joe Perawiti became a real handful, as did scrappy hooker Sean Wanden, upright running fullback Tana Tuakaraina, and constantly off-loading flanker Sisa Vosaki.
Wanganui were stretched for front rowers as try-scoring prop Viki Tofa came off at halftime with a sore leg, and then Kamipeli Latu also pulled up lame and was hobbling around needing a stoppage before King Country scored their third try against 13 and a half men.
Tofa came back on, as did starting hooker Jack Yarrall, and they along with Horrocks were responsible for some key turnovers of King Country's ruck ball, while the returning Madams, captain Campbell Hart and flanker Angus Middleton again led the tackle count.
Aside from Clare and Symes, second-five Peni Nabainivalu was the pick of the backline – creating play with ball in hand and firmly wrapping up the home side's midfield attackers.
Hart again acknowledged the defence, after Wanganui again had the momentum turn against them, with a couple of tough calls from referee Nick Webster.
Although it should be noted, Webster was correct in denying King Country two tries – one for a forward pass and the other when Wanganui spilled the ball while they still held a penalty advantage.
"They just came back massive in the second half, our discipline let us down," said Hart.
"They starved us of possession, didn't get a chance to get it going."
Wanganui coach Jason Caskey was more than happy to get out of Te Kuiti with five competition points and a squad feeling like they could have done better.
"We had to work hard for long periods of that second half, which is probably good for us.
"You [can] start believing you're better than you are.
"What we warned the boys about up here is the heat. It's really sapping.
"It was far from game over [at 24-0]."
Caskey praised Tafili for taking an early stranglehold on proceedings, ultimately playing 65 minutes and possibly could have stayed on a little longer as his scheduled shift change came while Madams was in the bin.
An early Wanganui penalty in their own 22m saw Clare thump the ball right down to King Country's 10m, setting the tone immediately.
While the midfielders missed their chance with centre Kaveni Dabenaise couldn't reach an inside cut ball from Nabainivalu, while winger Cameron Crowley was unmarked outside them, Wanganui stayed on attack and eventually got the penalty for Clare to open their account.
A long run by Symes saw Wanganui get another penalty and Clare again trapped King Country on the 5m.
After the Madams lineout win, the pack drove to the tryline while holding another penalty advantage, as Tofa went off the second shunt with Horrocks behind him to score.
Struggling to get ball and territory, then doing little with either, King Country tried an attacking chip kick, but a leaping Symes defused it and then Horrocks fed Tafili on the blindside to smash through a tackle and find no-one else near him for a 30m run to the line.
A great Dabenaise pass to Clare set Wanganui back in motion, but the fullback made his sole mistake when the key pass to Symes was at his boot laces.
But when the home side tried to clear it, Middleton took Wanganui back to midfield and Nabainivalu just swept through his jersey-tugging marker and put Horrocks over beside the posts.
King Country then lifted a gear, aided by a couple of penalties to camp in Wanganui's half, yet missing their try when Wanden's final pass to winger Baven Brown was forward, before the visitor's turned it back around and Clare couldn't quite regather when chasing a Nabainivalu grubber kick over the tryline.
It seemed Wanganui still had matters well in hand as the second half started, with Clare's kicking still radar-accurate to the corner despite the head wind, and after sustained buildup, first-five Dane Whale's long pass hit Dabenaise perfectly in the gap to step out of a diving tackle and dot down.
But again King Country gritted their teeth and got back to business, as Perawiti and reserve forward Doug Clapcott made hit ups to the tryline, being held up, then after a penalty scrum, they kept recycling and eventually Brown took a bounce pass in front of the posts and stepped through to dive over.
First-five Evan Reihana tried a good looking attacking kick at the restart, but Symes was there to make another brilliant leaping catch of the difficult bounce, then find Whale in support, before Tafili hit it up and offloaded back to Symes to sprint away to the corner.
The teenager also took over Clare's job at the back with good clearing kicks, so it was a big blow when he had to be helped off with his shoulder arched up, immediately after Madams got the yellow card.
King Country took advantage as they attacked from the scrum and despite great tryline defence by Horrocks and reserve prop Wiremu Cottrell, Wanden eventually found the chink and was driven over the line.
The comeback continued as King Country stayed on the offensive, taking a steady stream of tap kicks from their penalties, despite good cover tackling from Hart, reserve Tremaine Gilbert and others.
Eventually, Perawiti made a line break, and after four tryline rucks, reserve Sam Trangmar burrowed his way over in the 72nd minute.
It was too late for victory but not a four-try bonus point, yet Wanganui finally cleared their half after a great run by reserve back Tyler Rogers-Holden, keeping the visitors trapped in front of their posts after a couple of infringements.
King Country tried to run it out on fulltime, but lost possession, becoming the fifth straight team to walk off the field against Wanganui with nothing to show for it.
Wanganui 36 (Viki Tofa, Michael Tafili, Lindsay Horrocks, Kaveni Dabenaise, Harry Symes tries; Craig Clare pen, 4 con) bt King Country 19 (Baven Brown, Sean Wanden, Sam Trangmar tries; Evan Reihana 2 con). HT: 24-0.