Maybe the times are changing in Tasman Tanning Division 1 rugby, as a determined 14-man Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau came from behind to put away a tiring Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist 29-27 at the Country Club this afternoon.
A crucial game for both teams on their journey along "murderers row", playing all semifinal contenders consecutively, similar circumstances would have created a 30-point blowout against Kaierau two seasons ago.
They lost young winger Tawera Puohotaua to a red card for a dangerous late tackle on returning Marist fullback Sean Brown in the 20th minute, on top of missing two injured front line players while their in-form kicker Shandon Scott could only play the second half.
Instead, through sheer force of will and displaying a maturity lacking in their play until now, Kaierau hung in there against their bigger opposition forward pack, who had the name talent but not quite the same conditioning due to a growing injury list of their own.
The mounting handling errors of the first half, when Kaierau was shaken by Puohotaua's departure, finally dried up and Scott's arrival to join inspirational captain Ethan Robinson saw them turn the momentum with a smart kicking game.
Marist's dangerman in No 8 Taione Ratu, back in the starting lineup, along with backline general Pene Nabainivalu and hard-running second-five Jamie Lee Robertson were dominant when on the front foot and finding support players for offloads, which included zippy winger Luke Foster getting two tries.
But Kaierau now have a standout attacker and distributor of their own in prop Raymond Epati, who as he did last year for Black Bull Liquor Pirates can lay defences wide open – setting up one try and making the crucial bust that led to Scott's match-winning penalty with less than a minute left.
At second-five, co-coach Ace Malo turned the clock back five years with an stunning individual try under the posts, while putting the pressure on a chip kick chase that led to winger Tim Goodwin getting the try in the corner to give their team for the second time late in the match.
Ultimately, the big point of difference for Kaierau's victory can be laid upon the towering shoulders of locks Matt Ashworth and Josh Lane.
Even with the change of Joe Edwards swapping back into hooker from No 8 for the injured Kohlt Coveny, Ashworth and Lane were secure whether in short lineouts or regular, always collected their quick-fire throw-in's, and stole or batted down multiple Marist throws to break the visitors momentum.
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Both men, Lane especially in an 80 minute effort, refused to back down an inch to Marist's imposing Steelform Wanganui incumbent Sam Madams, as the sight of a Kaierau forward pack bringing down rolling mauls to earn turnovers and penalties in the second half is something new for 2019.
"They're building some self belief, there's no question about it," said Kaierau co-coach Carl Gibson, who was relieved the team finally followed halftime instructions to kick and make Marist run it back out from their half, rather than trying the risky breakouts of season's past.
"It's their fitness – their choosing to get fit.
"Once we started clearing, we got in the right part of the field."
As well as Lane and Scott, Gibson had to praise blindside flanker Woody Martin – new to union this year from the dormant Whanganui Boxon league team, who handled himself well in the furnace against Marist's big loosies in Ratu, Lake Ah Chong and Bradley Graham.
Marist coach Marty Bullock was pleased to have the services of Brown after Haze Reweti's withdrawal led to a complete rearranging of the backline, with lightning fullback Emitai Logadraudrau moving into centre.
"We're struggling with some injuries with the boys, even before kickoff, we had some a bit sore," he said.
"No excuses, Kaierau played really well.
"This hurts. I'm proud they stuck at it for that last try," Bullock said, as Marist attacked from the final kickoff to secure a seven-pointer beside the posts.
"We'll take two bonus points. There's still a bit of rugby to be played."
Early on, it was all Marist as they bashed up Kaierau's smaller players around the ruck, then after securing what would be a rare lineout win against the throw, the ball was spread for Robertson to split the defence on his angled run and step around fullback Karl Pascoe to score in the sixth minute.
Without Scott, Robinson took the first half goal kicks yet could not land the first of what would be three misses, but his tactical boot didn't dessert him as Puohotaua latched onto an attacking chip which led to a Kaierau lineout in good position.
After an Ashworth hit-up in front of the posts, Robinson found Pascoe with a long pass, and the fullback redeemed his earlier miss by sweeping around Foster to score in the corner.
Puohotaua chased another kick but the ball had long gone from Brown's boot by the time he hammered the fullback, leading to referee Aaron Conlon pulling his red card in what seemed the game's decisive moment.
Marist reinforced that notion when they attacked immediately from the penalty scrum and Nabainivalu combined with Robertson for perfect offloads to put Foster over out wide, with Brown converting from touch in the 23rd minute.
Kaierau called upon their stamina and had their chances to strike in the second quarter, but squandered them with handling mistakes, while Marist just missed out on extending their lead right before halftime when Logadraudrau couldn't hang onto a bullet pass in the shadow of the posts.
It didn't seem to matter as veterans Simon Dibben and Ricky Alabaster came on to settle the visitors, and Marist struck four minutes after the resumption when prop Cameron Neilson snuck through a big gap on the blindside of the ruck and cleared Goodwin to send Foster away for his double at 17-5.
But with Lane stealing lineouts while both Scott and Pascoe peppered Marist's back field with attacking kicks, Kaierau got the field position and Epati charged wide on a planned move with his fellow prop Fa'afetai Siona, who got the perfect pass to cross the line and run back to the posts for 17-12.
Marist were now sucking in the air, as Brown missed a relatively straight-forward penalty to reaffirm their lead, while Kaierau found their second wind as great Robinson defence led to a turnover, and then the captain found a half gap to link with Pascoe, before getting a wild pass back and just being caught short of the line – Conlon ruling a knock on.
Kaierau circumvented Marist's clearances with return kicks and then lineout pressure, and Madams getting into it with Lane led to a crucial reversal penalty for the home side.
Marist defenders hit Kaierau's ball carriers hard, losing ground, but then Malo caught everyone napping by spotting the chance only a veteran could see – sprinting onto the ruck pass and standing up the stunned cover tacklers back inside to go under the posts.
Trailing 19-17, Marist didn't panic as they forced a turnover from the kickoff and made Kaierau over-extend at ruck time, with Alabaster taking over the kicking and landing the long-range penalty for 20-19 with 14 minutes left.
But it didn't last as a dropped ball led to an attacking Kaierau scrum and halfback Cameron Davies pushed through a chip kick for a motoring Malo, but the bounce cleared both the attacker and cover and instead fell perfectly for the trailing Goodwin to score in the corner, as Scott raised the flags from the sideline.
At 26-20, Scott and Robinson weren't taking chances, kicking for territory in the corners every chance they got, and when Kaierau got an attacking penalty, Epati smashed his way through again and only a brilliant tackle from Marist prop Viki Tofa stopped him going under the posts.
Exhausted, Marist's defenders never remotely got back onside at the tryline and Scott had his fourth straight kick to put his side out of reach with less than a minute left.
Marist dug deep to ultimately secure what could yet prove priceless bonus points as they won the kickoff and Nabainivalu, Ratu and Dibben linked with offloads to get in front of the posts, and reserve prop Gordon Karaitiana powered over from the ruck to snatch their fourth try.
Kaierau 29 (K Pascoe, F Siona, A Malo, T Goodwin tries; S Scott pen, 3 con) bt Marist 27 (L Foster 2, J Robertson, G Karaitiana tries; R Alabaster pen, con, S Brown con). HT: 12-5 Marist.