In must-win mode for the rest of their Mitre 10 Heartland Championship campaign, Steelform Wanganui received a big boost midweek with the news their nuggety flanker Jamie Hughes has been cleared to play against East Coast on Saturday.
Hughes was found not guilty of a dangerous high tackle at his NZRU judiciary hearing late Wednesday afternoon, with his sixth minute red card in the Rorke's Drift win over West Coast now expunged from his record.
While coach Jason Caskey did have other quality flanker options available in the event of a possible 1-2 week suspension, with Angus Middleton on standby and Samu Kubunavanua covering the bench, it was more important that Hughes can now go forward without an unnecessary black mark on his career record.
The verdict confirmed Caskey and the WRFU's defence of Hughes where the hit which resulted in a red card from Taranaki referee Cam Stone was just a hard tackle targeted at the shoulder area.
"Common sense prevails, for a change," said Caskey today.
It strengthens the team to play winless but potentially dangerous East Coast, because although Wanganui have made a handful of changes to their starting XV, it is not like the rotation policy of season's past against the same opposition.
"No-one is getting a rest," said Caskey.
Prop Wiremu Cottrell came out of one hard second-half contact against the West Coast forwards with his arm hanging, and although the front rower gamely played on, his AC joint is still sore so he will sit out this week, with Kamipeli Latu and Gabriel Hakaraia getting the coveted starting spots ahead of try-scorer Raymond Salu in tight competition for the roles.
Josh Lane will also get another start at lock ahead of incumbent Sam Madams, with Lane being one of the players Caskey wants to ensure gets more than a 15-20 minute trot should more be required in the latter half of the season.
The fifth week of the Heartland competition is the cut-off point for introducing any potential imports to squads, so Caskey has exercised the option by introducing his second Auckland-based player in the space of two matches – outside back Amos Pogia joining the bench ahead of Karl Pascoe.
"We decided to role the dice because Pene [Nabainivalu] is our only centre at the moment."
There was no way Nabainivalu wasn't going to be the best back on the field last week against West Coast, remembering eight years of rivalry when he was with Buller.
But the effort took its toll as the veteran has been playing through a painful leg injury since the club season, and had pre-planned to miss tomorrow's game in any case for a trip home to Fiji.
"Every day we've got him is a bonus, at the moment," said Caskey.
"[His injury] might go 'bang' and it might be gone.
"Craig [Clare] was our go-to centre if no Peni, and he's out as well."
Therefore, Pogia has joined the lineup, given neither of the starting midfielders in Troy Brown or Ethan Robinson can be considered specialist centres at representative level.
Originally from Nelson, Pogia played for the Tasman Under 19's and Tasman B before shifting north to join University RFC, having been away with the Auckland wider Mitre 10 Cup squad for a preseason tour to Japan.
"He's a young guy, heard some good things about him," said Caskey.
Although still hunting their first victory since 2013, wooden-spooners East Coast deserve more respect than their statistics suggest after recruiting well.
The obvious name is 10-test All Black Zac Guildford, who commutes to the coast from his teaching job in the Waikato, and returns to Cooks Gardens after scoring a try in the 2016 Meads Cup semifinal for Wairarapa Bush.
Hughes can expect a tough challenge from former Taranaki captain Mitchell Crosswell, doing his best to lift the side from open side flanker.
Their determined captain Hone Haerewa and dangerous attacking winger Epeli Lotawa must also be taken very seriously.
At home this season, East Coast have shown a bravery to run the ball from anywhere and were right in the contests with Mid Canterbury (22-15) and King Country (27-12), where a handful of mistakes cost them tries.
While they were well beaten on the long inter-island haul to face Buller (54-19), they were likewise in the fight for a long time against Meads Cup champions Thames Valley (43-15), both teams that also beat Wanganui.
"They are playing well and they're a pretty strong team," said Caskey, who has been able to watched streamed footage of East Coast's North Island games.
"I don't see too many weaknesses, got some really good ball carriers."
As a number of teams ahead of Wanganui on the points table face off tomorrow, a victory with a bonus point would move them back into the playoff conversation, but with a 1-3 record currently, Caskey has more pressing matters than game's played elsewhere.
"We've just got to take are of our job, every week.
"We're not looking beyond East Coast, that's a big job at the moment as well."
Kickoff is 2.30pm.
The teams are
1. Kamipeli Latu; 2. Dylan Gallien; 3. Gabriel Hakaraia; 4. Josh Lane; 5. Peter Travis Hay-Horton; 6. Campbell Hart (c); 7. Jamie Hughes; 8. Ezra Meleisea; 9. Lindsay Horrocks; 10. Dane Whale; 11. Tyler Rogers-Holden; 12. Troy Brown; 13. Ethan Robinson; 14. Vereniki Tikoisolomone; 15. Shai Wiperi.
Reserves – Forwards: 16. Roman Tutauha; 17. Raymond Salu; 18. Sam Madams; 19. Samu Kubunavanua. Backs: 20. Cameron Davies; 21. Nick Harding; 22. Amos Pogia.
1. Laman Davies; 2. Wyntah Riki; 3. Perrin Manual; 4. Scott Lasenby; 5. Adam Ross; 6. Hoani Te Moana; 7. Mitchell Crosswell; 8. Hone Haerewa (c); 9. Sam Parkes; 10. Chris Richardson; 11. Epeli Lotawa; 12. Tawhao Stewart; 13. Zac Guildford; 14. Benny Haerewa; 15. Verdon Bartlett.
Reserves – 16. John Brown; 17. Pera Bishop; 18. Anton King; 19. Rikki Kernohan; 20. Hamuera Baker; 21. William Martin; 22. Billy Manuel.