The fairytale run came to an end as Steelform Wanganui's great comeback in the 2019 Mitre 10 Heartland Championship finished one match short after a 33-19 loss to North Otago in Oamaru today.
Lifting the Meads Cup for their third time in their history, all of them by beating Wanganui at Whitestone Contracting Stadium, North Otago were better than the scoreline suggests after making the advantage line consistently around the ruck and showing very good retention work for multiple phases, being rewarded with a four tries to three triumph.
Their acting captain and Heartland veteran Ralph Darling gave a maestro performance, even landing a jaw-dropping drop kick from behind a 10m ruck late in the first half, while midfielders Taina Tamou and the other veteran in Lemi Masoe generated great attacking impetus when sweeping wide.
Wanganui were pulled into a one-off carry game for which they are not suited, as attempts to play their offload style saw them caught behind the advantage line in the face of physical tackling, while being vulnerable to turnovers at the breakdown.
The lineout held sway in the first half, again led ably by captain Campbell Hart plus locks Josh Lane and Sam Madams, who along with hard working halfback Lindsay Horrocks and brave prop Kamipeli Latu were probably the standout Wanganui players.
But without their usual traction, having been dragged into a street fight for the second week in a row, while going into a first half breeze which fell away slightly for their turn in the second stanza, every Wanganui handling error became magnified.
Flanker Angus Middleton got bashed from pillar to post, but came back strongly with an early second half try to close the gap to 25-14.
Lightning winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone had precious few chances, as a number of looping cut out passes to him flew into touch, but he finished just shy of Heartland rugby's season record after scoring an excellent individual runaway try for his 13th of 2019.
But with North Otago first-five Murray Williams getting the better of the tackle kicking duel, even into the breeze, and North Otago managing to swipe a couple of Wanganui's second half lineouts, the visitors were swimming against the tide.
Lock and tryscorer Charles Elton, backed up by hooker Hayden Tisdall, No 8 Josh Clark and livewire fullback Patrick Pati, had earned the right to lift the silverware.
"Full credit to North Otago, they drew us into a kind of tight game we didn't really want to play – we wanted to play a bit looser than that," said Hart in his post-game television interview.
"That's the harsh reality of sport – we can have a good ride and then come down and fall at the last hurdle.
"Their work at ruck time, and they just hustled all day and put us under pressure."
It was a sad way to end what had become a magic run, as Wanganui had been chasing a slice of history to become the first Heartland team to win the title after losing their opening three games.
"We were really proud of the effort. In that fourth game [with West Coast] we were red carded, we fought with our backs against the wall and we came back from that," said Hart.
"So incredibly proud of the boys and, like I said, we couldn't quite make it today."
Middleton likewise confirmed they had been out-muscled in his interview.
"It was extremely physical from the first whistle, credit to North Otago, they came out from the first whistle and threw all their bodies at it, and they dominated the majority of the game.
"We knew they would come out guns blazing, we just thought we needed to combat that and try to match them with their physicality.
"We talked about it at halftime in terms of trying to build phases and hold on the ball and what not, but North Otago just smothered us and we couldn't get into any of our plays.
"We let ourselves down in passages, but credit to the boys, we're here in the final but couldn't overcome a strong North Otago side.
"Every game since West Coast was a must-win, so to get here we take some credit from it and proud of the boys effort."
As Darling and Masoe have joined an elite list of players, which previously only included Wanganui men, by winning their third Meads Cup, Darling praised the visitors.
"They're outstanding, every year it doesn't matter who the personnel they have, they're always there or thereabouts.
"We knew if we didn't start well, they were going to run away. Full credit to them, they've had an outstanding season and I know next year they'll be back, bigger and better."
Wanganui assistant coach Jason Hamlin said the team had just been taken away from their game plan.
"Their execution was a bit better, our defense has been a bit of a strength the last six games and today we were doing a lot of shoulder grabbing and jersey grabbing, no shoulders on [the hit] – it wasn't there.
"We didn't plan to go the one-offs and do those things, the three tries we scored were all from the stuff we were trying to do.
"Too often we were always left under pressure. Probably our ball carry was a bit weak, so every time we tried to set up we just didn't have quite enough go-forward momentum for ourselves.
"[The mistakes] are all magnified. We were conscious it was a big effort last week, both physically and mentally."
The team had felt good making the journey down south, but Hamlin felt his players had to dig into their "reserves tank" earlier than the home side, who maintained their structure for the full 80 minutes.
"We were swimming against the tide a bit there.
"A kick missed and a conversion missed, they weren't the reason why [we lost], but they didn't help the cause."
North Otago started exactly as they did against Wairarapa Bush, as following lost Wanganui ball they worked through 15 phases with superb control, and from the 2m ruck recyle, Elton drove towards the posts and got the ball onto the padding, setting up an easy conversion for halfback Robbie Smith.
Wanganui won the kickoff through winger Shai Wiperi and then got a succession of penalties as the home side rushed up too quick, setting for two drives from the lineout.
But they were stopped, while fullback Nick Harding was away with a penalty attempt which the wind pushing the ball off on the left hand angle.
A Wanganui infringement in their own half, after North Otago quickly ran back their shallow clearances, set up a penalty for Smith to make it 10-0 in the 16th minute, and they were soon back again as the pack controlled the ball for another 17 phase attack before the defenders earned a ruck penalty.
Trying to manufacture an opening, Harding went for a chip kick on halfway, but the bounce was perfect for Masoe to charge through an exposed back field and draw Wiperi to put winger Adam Johnson over untouched.
Wanganui had chances with Middleton and Lane trying hit-ups, but lost ball in the carry was really hurting, then Pati ran wide through a big gap and found Tamou with him.
Tamou set up winger Howard Packman, who just maintained his footing through Tikoisolomone's diving tackle to run back towards the posts, with Smith adding his 101st points of the season with the conversion.
At 22-0 after 27 minutes, Wanganui were in trouble, but responded well after Smith put a box kick out of the full, as Hart and No 8 Ezra Meleisea made short offloads for Wiperi to hit a gap and find Horrocks back inside to score beside the posts for 22-7.
Another 12 phases of carrying brought North Otago close enough for Smith to try a drop goal, which was partially charged down, and from a close ruck, Darling of all people took the snap and sent it down the middle with two minutes left until halftime.
Finding the wind not as strong as when they were going into it, Wanganui still made a comeback as they advanced from a 22m lineout, with centre Amos Pogia getting the pass from Middleton to attack the line, and then two rucks later, first-five Dane Whale fed Middleton, who showed great strength to stay on his feet in Pati's tackle and twist over the tryline, with Harding converting in the 44th minute.
Yet North Otago proved they could play without the conditions in their favour, as they worked up from the kickoff and got a penalty advantage to retain control for another 17 phases, with Tamou attacking the tryline, and although the ball popped out loose, Smith quickly grabbed it and found defenders and attackers were still tied up, slipping through beside the maul for 30-14.
Wanganui began going to their bench, having already brought on prop Raymond Salu for Wiremu Cottrell before halftime, as reserve Ethan Robinson tried to set up a play with veteran Penijamini Nabainivalu.
From the ruck near halfway, Madams fed the pass to Tikoisolomone, who dashed through the gap and ran right around Johnson to beat Pati with the dive at the corner flag – with the try awarded after the TMO gave the thumbs up.
Harding had only just been replaced and Whale could not add the difficult sideline extras, but hope was still alive at 30-19 entering the final quarter.
It proved a false hope as Wanganui struggled to get out of their half, with North Otago still pressing relentlessly, as the visitors getting offside following a defensive lineout gave Smith a 24m penalty chance and he took his team two converted tries ahead.
North Otago then camped in Wanganui's half, as they made desperate errors trying to break out, and although Smith missed the match-winning kick with eight minutes left, the defence of Darling and his forwards meant they stayed deep inside the attacking 22m, right up to the final whistle.
North Otago 33 (C Elton, A Johnson, H Packman, R Smith tries; Smith 2 pen, 2 con, R Darling dg) bt Wanganui 19 (L Horrocks, A Middleton, V Tikoisolomone tries; N Harding 2 con). HT: 25-7.