It was much more fair dinkim than 12 months before, but McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu eventually took control up the Waitotara Valley to out-work Settlers Honey Ngamatapouri 56-18 this afternoon.
In a Tasman Tanning Premier game of opposites attack, Ruapehu overcame a nervous start where their structure was there but not the execution, making uncharacteristic handling errors, to eventually wear the hosts down with pressure around the ruck and proficiency in the scrum and lineout.
Ngamatapouri, meanwhile, have signalled they are back to being a danger team for any Premier opposition, with a stacked Fijian backline that loves to move the ball and does not need the weight of possession or territory to catch you out with long-range tries.
Despite missing midfielder Jim Seruwalu, recovering from a broken hand, and no training during the week without new coach Sean Edmonds, Ngamatapouri has speed to burn while Josaia Dawai, Samu Kubunavanua, Ponti Cacicau, and Rusi Vukula are able to break the line or produce flat pass offloads which can open up the defence.
Trailing 8-5 late in the first half, while the hosts also came back at them repeatedly at 22-13 and 34-18 in the second stanza, Ruapehu eventually pulled away thanks to the characteristic grit of their veteran forwards.
Try-scoring No8 Campbell Hart and flanker Jamie Hughes literally took over the entire game, marshalling their side forward and tearing Ngamatapouri open when they began to tire in customary fashion in the fourth quarter.
Returning winger Tautahi Rawiri prospered when his side was able to keep ball in hand, receiving the final pass to score a hat trick of tries in the corner, while second-five Troy Brown set up Rawiri's first try and was on hand at key moments in the final quarter to get a double.
Other Ruapehu standouts were lock Jackson Campbell, following up from Hart's initiative, while fullback Mitchell Millar regained lost territory for his team during the first half with well-judged line kicks into the breeze, along with some impressive sideline conversions.
It was the first real test for coach Daisy Alabaster's squad since the departure of linchpin playmaker Craig Clare.
"Rebuild stage, got a lot of new boys," Alabaster said.
"We're happy with what we're doing. Good lineout and scrum."
Once Ruapehu stopped pushing 50-50 passes, which led to ten handling errors inside Ngamatapouri's half in the first 40 minutes, they were able to maintain momentum and never looked back.
"We don't drop ball like that," Alabaster said.
"In two and a half years, we haven't been made to look stupid like Ngamatapouri did with those tries."
While Ngamatapouri have always had a gap in quality between their speedy ball runners and the grinders who do the unfashionable but vital phase and set piece work, captain Bryn Hudson was pleased to have a competitive squad again after the horrors of 2018.
"We're pretty happy with where we've come through, a lot more positives than last year, which we don't even talk about now.
"We've got a backline that puts the razzle in the dazzle, it's just hanging onto it and setting a platform, which we didn't do enough today.
"Glad to have Samu back, he had a great game.
"The aim is to stick in that top tier."
With Ruapehu losing the ball early in hard contact, Ngamatapouri looked to break out with Kubunavanua playing at flanker and searching for gaps at the breakdown, with their initial raid leading to a penalty for first-five Sheldon Pakinga-Manhire to boot them into the lead.
They could have added a couple of tries as swift backline spreads from the scrum left Ruapehu caught napping out wide by the likes of fullback Seva Seraraia and winger Villie Kuruyabaki, only for the last pass to be forward each time.
A mistake by the home team set a rare chance for Ruapehu with a 5m scrum, and Brown palmed off his tackler to drift wide and send off a great pass for Rawiri to score the opening try.
Ngamatapouri made no mistake on their next backline spread as Vukula ran the angle to link with Seraraia, who bounced off Millar at the line to ground the ball.
Millar tied the scores 8-8 with a penalty kick in front, and then Ruapehu finally executed a perfect play on attack as Hart claimed a penalty lineout and the pack drove 12m to put prop Gabriel Hakaraia over the chalk.
Ruapehu then really hurt Ngamatapouri right on halftime, as led by Hart off another 5m scrum, the forwards all piled up in front of the goalposts, before spreading the ball wide for Rawiri to pick up a bounce pass and force his way over in the corner for 22-8.
They then started the second half in the same fashion, but you cannot relax against Ngamatapouri, who got a penalty 15m from their own line for Kubunavanua to quick tap and cut his way through the middle of the park, finding Cacicau in support to put Seraraia away for a brilliant counterattack try.
After repeated team warnings for no-arm shoulder tackles, referee Ben Lourie sinbinned Dawai and Ruapehu immediately stepped up a gear.
Hart ran off another close range scrum to put halfback Kahl Elers-Green through the gap untouched to score, and then Hughes jinked his way under tackles to bring Ruapehu straight back the line, with the ball fed out to Rawiri for his hat trick at 34-13.
Back to full strength, Ngamatapouri responded as Cacicau wrapped around Vukula to accept a brilliant no-look pass – sevens style – and turn a two vs two situation into an untouched try in the corner.
But Ruapehu were now firing on all cylinders as they worked off a lineout through Hart and Campbell to drive to the tryline, with Hughes getting up a head of steam and diving low to score.
Another spread between the backs and loose forwards saw Ruapehu break out from their own half, with Brown getting the last pass to dot down.
Desperate for a bonus point, Ngamatapouri kept trying to run it out from deep in their territory, with Hart snatching an intercept and holding off Pakinga-Manhire to score, while two hard tackles from Ruapehu's reserve winger Corey Carmichael saw the hosts cough up possession again for Hughes to feed Brown to get his double right on fulltime.
Ruapehu 56 (T Rawiri 3, T Brown 2, G Hakaraia, K Elers-Green, J Hughes, C Hart tries; M Millar pen, 4 con) bt Ngamatapouri 18 (S Seraraia 2, P Cacicau tries; S Pakinga-Manhire pen). HT: 22-8.