The 'Battler Boys' have done it again.
Just like 2017 in Timaru, Steelform Wanganui have come from fourth spot to claim the toughest away Meads Cup semifinal with a 20-15 revenge win over Thames Valley at Paeroa Domain today.
As a still very much committed and focused home team, being carried on the backs of a large partisan crowd, Thames Valley were as good if not better than they had been in their previous two victories over Wanganui at Cooks Gardens – from some superb offloads in the midfield, to a dominant second-half scrum and pinpoint goal kicking from proven first-five Reece Broughton (five from five).
But this time they found a Wanganui team who both expected and did not fear a street fight – and that was what it was – as they came back from 12-0 down to close the gap to five points by halftime, avoiding their usual pitfall of conceding points at the break, while giving speedster Vereniki Tikoisolomone just another open ground to turn on the after-burners and score a double off attacking kicks.
Having dotted down 12 times in 2019, Tikoisolomone now has the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship season record of 14 tries in his sights, heading down to Oamaru for the rematch with North Otago in the final.
Having cemented his spot in the starting XV on the strength of his goal kicking, fullback Nick Harding (four from four) was just as immaculate as Broughton – including an absolutely stunning 55m penalty kick late in the third quarter to take Wanganui out to 17-12 and silence the home supporter's horns at the domain.
Wanganui didn't have their usual punch in the midfield from inside ball short balls, which were the hallmark of their previous wins, whereas Thames Valley's brain trust of Broughton and second-five Sam 'Guns' McCahon put attacker after attacker outside their marker with fantastic offloads.
Yet Wanganui's previously brittle outside backline defence held, if only by their fingers nails.
Tikoisolomone, Harding, second-five Penijamini Nabainivalu, and reserve Ethan Robinson all ran down and snagged their targets.
There was only one real chink in Thames Valley's armour – given the Waikato country team pride themselves on their set piece – and it was the lineout.
Having rejigged their starting XV with inspirational captain Brett Ranga moved into lock, multiple home side throw-ins were swiped or spoiled by Wanganui, which was a credit to captain Campbell Hart and the locks Sam Madams and player of the day Josh Lane.
On the other side of the coin, Wanganui's throw retentions were mostly good, despite the calls being difficult to hear as Thames Valley's home ground announcers opted to blast loud rock music right up until the point of the throw-in.
Wanganui held their composure when referee Dan Waenga, officiating an NPC playoff in his second season, sent flanker Angus Middleton to the sinbin in the second half following an exchange of punches with his opposite Fred Kei Fotofili – actually scoring 10 points in his absence to snatch the lead.
In the final five minutes of play, which seemed to stretch on for 15 as Thames Valley made endless carries out of their half into Wanganui's 40m, it was the courage of Hart, Middleton, reserve Jamie Hughes and prop Kamipeli Latu, who came back for an injured Gabriel Hakaraia, which held the line.
Latu and Hakaraia were excellent in the first half scrums against their bigger opponents, including winning a tighthead and a couple of penalties
First-five Dane Whale, who in combination with halfback Lindsay Horrocks kicked well with the second-half breeze, was at his needling best at the finish – as with every Thames Valley mistake he looked to goad them into frustration, with each exchange of jersey-grabbing wasting 10-15 more seconds.
After conceeding five penalties in the opening exchanges, the discipline tightened up, with Waenga ultimately blowing a 12-11 final count in Thames Valley's favour.
Yet most of the second-half infringements for the Swampfoxes were beyond the 40m line – just outside Broughton's range without a tailwind.
Many times this season, Hart has spoken about finding the right combinations and squad chemistry, but today, their win was all about courage.
"We hadn't played as smartly as we had [previously], but we knew we had the heart."
Hart was asked what was said in the knife edge final minutes, after Broughton kicked his fifth penalty to reduce the gap to five, and then Thames Valley went sideline to sideline for nearly 20 phases in search of an opening.
"I didn't say anything, but if I did, that's keep our discipline and tackle hard.
"Thames Valley, they just disrupt you into a game you don't want to play.
"We put their lineout under pressure, and the idea was that didn't give their backs a chance."
Coach Jason Caskey was delighted they cut down Thames Valley's options from the lineout – the only part of the defending champion's game which wasn't strong.
"Massive, we done a lot of work in our lineout and thought we could put some pressure on," he said.
"We managed to take a fair bit away from them.
"The character was there in that last 15 minutes when they were just ploughing in on us – we turned it over 3-4 times by counter-rucking and turnovers."
Thames Valley searched out wide and often found either an overlap or some space, but the missed tackles from Wanganui's first three games have finally been expunged by the battle-hardened outside defenders.
"They did well, gave away ground at times, but they got them," said Caskey.
"[Battling], that's what we talked about – we were going to war and it was a war.
"I couldn't be prouder than at this moment."
It didn't seem that way early as Wanganui were penalised from the opening kickoff for a high shot, while Thames Valley took advantage of the breeze and a couple of visitor's handling errors to camp on the attacking side of halfway.
As the third-highest points scorer in 2019 despite not playing every match, Broughton had his kicking boots and perfectly judged his opening 45m penalty, then backed up immediately with another 40m kick on the slight angle.
Wanganui put a passed-back 22m clearance out on the full, and then barely survived the pin-point cross kick by Broughton, which unmarked try-scoring machine flanker Laulea Mau just couldn't haul in.
But being under penalty advantage, Thames Valley had another easy kick for Broughton to pop over.
Having previously fumbled a box kick, Tikoisolomone then had a miscommunication with Harding on another probing chip by Thames Valley, and getting isolated in the breakdown offered Broughton another gift and had home town fans roaring at 12-0.
But Wanganui stayed in the fight, pressuring Thames Valley's lineout and beginning to find some space, as Tikoisolomone was ruled to have stepped out when diving over out wide, with play going back for a Wanganui penalty.
The prolific winger crossed the tryline again shortly after, but the bounce pass to him was ruled forward, and Wanganui were starting to wonder what they had to do following another ruck penalty in front of the tryline – as hooker Roman Tutauha crossed from the lineout play, but again the last pass was forward.
Thames Valley were rushing up quick, and having worked back into the 30m, Horrocks tried the grubber kick and Tikoisolomone flashed outside the cover defence to win the race into the corner, with Harding adding the extras.
The 50m restart being left to bounce out on at 22m raised fears of previous games where Wanganui leaked last-play points, but this time they drove clear with composure to get to halftime while still in striking distance.
Middleton's yellow card had Thames Valley hungry to get on top, but another lineout fumble cost them, as Whale tried a low flat kick back over halfway.
Thames Valley fullback Regan Crosland is a big match player, but he isn't very tall, as an absolute horror bounce went over his head, and then a blue blur in the form of Tikoisolomone flashed past him to dive in-goal – with Harding adding the priceless extras for 14-12.
A few minutes later, nearing the end of Middleton's sentence, Wanganui forced a penalty from a ruck on their own 45m, as Harding's signal to the posts was scoffed at by everyone at the ground wearing a yellow jersey – both on the field and off.
Harding struck the ball absolutely sweet and it was only just beginning to drop as it cleared the crossbar, leaving the travelling Wanganui supporters ecstatic and the rest of Paeroa Domain in stunned silence.
Wanganui began bringing on their bench not long after Middleton's return, with the flanker having had enough rest to carry him the 80 minutes while being joined by Hughes to have two first-class scroungers on the paddock.
Reserve prop Raymond Salu was immediately pressured by Thames Valley's mammoth Chilean in Sergio De La Feunte, with the Swampfoxes cynically pushing up the scrum to get penalties.
Yet Wanganui still held sway in the lineout, after which Tutauha and Horrocks nearly engineered a sideline breakout, and while the ball was turned over, Thames Valley couldn't keep their hands out of the ruck and Harding coolly slotted a 35m penalty on the angle to finally give his team breathing space.
Now in the same situation as Wanganui were at Cooks Gardens 12 months before – needing two scores in less than ten minutes – Thames Valley got a 39m penalty opportunity and Broughton matched Harding with a clutch kick.
It led up to a final period of six minutes plus injury time which seemed to stretch on forever, as Ranga went everywhere trying to bust through and offload, while three fresh reserves gave Thames Valley the energy to keep passing and carrying.
But Waenga's whistle at the 21st phase on Wanganui's 45m line signalled the end of another classic Meads Cup semifinal.
Wanganui 20 (V Tikoisolomone 2 tries; N Harding 2 pen, 2 con) bt Thames Valley 15 (R Broughton 5 pen). HT: 12-7 Thames Valley.