Play smart, and play the whistle.
McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu continued their unbeaten streak and Grand Hotel Challenge Shield reign by pushing back a fuming Byford's Readimix Taihape 24-15 in a feisty country rugby clash at Memorial Park on Saturday.
There is still not much separating what were the leading two teams of the new Tasman Tanning Division 1 competition, but unfortunately for the home side, the mountain men had welded over the chink in their armour from fading late in games, while their talented fullback Mitchell Millar has regained his kicking form.
Landing five from seven attempts, Millar coolly slotted two excellent penalty kicks from 40m out on the angle inside of the last five minutes to leave Taihape outside of bonus point range.
Those two daggers compounded the home side's own disappointment as their young winger James Barrett, a confidence player, could only manage one from six attempts, costing Taihape the chance to put scoreboard pressure on Ruapehu during the first half when they were dominating territory, after conceding the opening try.
Frustrations were getting the better of Taihape, both on the field and the sideline, after a couple of 50-50 calls from referee Ben Lourie and linesman Aaron Conlon went against
them in the final quarter, leading to a big points swing as a tenuous 12-11 lead flipped to a 21-12 deficit from Millar's boot and a close range try from standout No 8 Campbell Hart.
Hart had taken over where flanker and skipper Jamie Hughes left off, with Hughes having gone a mile a minute from the opening whistle, including his team's opening try, but then breaking down with injury in the fourth quarter.
Recognising their issue closing out games, Ruapehu had brought back one of their legends from retirement, as Andrew Evans came off the bench to settle the team.
Millar's goal kicking complemented his excellent tactical punts, while centre Tahiti Rawiri made some strong carries in the midfield and halfback Kahl Elers-Green stayed sharp behind his tanks in the forwards.
Taihape skipper Matt Brown tested Hart in the lineout, getting a couple of key steals, while Tyler-Rogers Holden gave Ruapehu all sorts of troubles attacking from fullback.
Rugby: Whanganui Collegiate beat four time CNI champs
Taihape vs Ruapehu the big game this weekend
Second-five Jaye Flaws made some great offloads and barged his way through for a fine try, with his only blight being a sinbinning for a high tackle late in the match.
Taihape had already started the second half with 14 men after prop Hadlee Hay-Horton was yellow carded for a no arms tackle that left Ruapehu lock Jackson Campbell hurt, although the official's calls remained consistent as the visitors finished the game a man down when first-five Josh Fifita went for professional fouls.
That did not mollify Taihape coach Tom Wells, who had vented angrily as the infringements were stacking up against his team, following Hart's try, although Wells took a moment to compose himself before the aftermatch interview.
"Too many penalties in the strike zone [that] we gave away," he said.
"Bad discipline, but both teams played it off the park.
"We'll see them again. Disappointing to lose on our own turf.
"It's not the kicker entirely, he's the one putting his hand up to do it. No one else wants to."
Ruapehu's co-coach and hard-nosed former prop Kim McNaught knew from experience that some days the calls go one way, and some days the other.
"We'll take it," he said.
He praised Hart and Evans for filling the gap when Hughes departed, as for the first time against a contender team, Ruapehu were on the right side of the second half scoring.
"That's what we talked about this week – being better on the back end.
"We milked a few penalties, so take it and move on."
Hughes was the difference between the teams in the opening exchanges, after Barrett missed his first penalty chance with a 38m attempt.
Playing into a slight wind, Ruapehu tried a couple of risky 22m breakout runs through second-five Troy Brown, but took advantage of some ruck penalties to finally clear their red zone.
A costly error came when Taihape didn't pick up that Ruapehu had only six in the lineout, and Hughes charged up off a tap kick, getting his team to the line, and then going again on the third shunt to score.
Taihape regained the territory, but Barrett's radar was off on three straight penalty attempts, although Ruapehu still struggled to clear as Rogers-Holden kept them pinned back with either probing kicks or threatening runs.
Opting to go to the sideline for a penalty lineout, Taihape halfback Ra Broughton fed Flaws, who grunted when he didn't get his timing on the angled cut quite right, yet still showed amazing strength to drag two defenders to the tryline and reach out to score, with Barrett adding the extras for 7-5.
Taihape tried to keep the momentum going with Flaws and flanker Timi Teepa hammering Hart, but the lifting tackle got away on them for a penalty, and Hughes grabbed another quick tap to charge deep into home territory.
Taihape stopped the attack under their posts, but Lourie had the first of several talks with Brown about infringement and discipline, and Millar accepted the easy three points in front.
A Rawiri surge had Ruapehu straight back on attack, and this time Lourie imposed martial law as Hay-Horton was carded and Millar had another straight-forward penalty, which Barrett couldn't match right on halftime to leave Taihape trailing 11-7.
They responded in the 50th minute after a long back-and-forth period, and it was no surprise that Rogers-Holden provided the spark with a great run and offload from inside his half.
Then when on attack, Rogers-Holden slipped through a gap near the line and despite Hughes running him down, the fullback found hooker Dylan Gallien to fend through the cover defence and score.
Taihape held their 12-11 lead for a long time, but it never seemed like enough as both penalty counts were mounting and the rain arrived, with the match turning into the midfield struggle that Wells had feared earlier in the week.
Ruapehu worked off a penalty and Rawiri hit-up, before Fifita dummied into a half gap and drove to the line, where despite Taihape feeling their defenders had rights to the ball, they backed off when warned and Hart took the hand-off beside the posts and dove through for a seven pointer.
Taihape's backs being pinged for offside at a defensive scrum set Millar up for an unsuccessful penalty chance and prompted Wells to let Conlon know just what he thought about the call.
Flaws was carded not long after and despite some vocal discouragement from the grandstand, Millar added the clutch penalty kick to galvanise his team for the final ten minutes at 21-12.
Taihape shook off their frustrations to attack with urgency, showing they can receive go-forward penalties as well, with Fifita being binned.
Centre Dane Whale took over from the departed Barrett to add three points from in front, backing his team to get straight down there again for a match-winning try with five minutes left.
But it wasn't to be as Ruapehu worked their way up through a couple of lineouts to get another penalty from wide out, which Millar slotted to leave the home side with no consolation.
Ruapehu 24 (J Hughes, C Hart tries; M Millar 4 pen, con) bt Taihape 15 (J Flaws, D Gallien tries; D Whale pen, J Barrett con). HT: 11-7.