Brought to you by Wanganui Rugby
The road warriors Byford Readmix Taihape have done it again as Tasman Tanning Premier's defending champions are going back to Cooks Gardens as the result of an away semifinal win, beating Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau 18-13 on Saturday.
Laden with experienced players who know how to conduct a siege, Taihape once again tackled themselves into the ground and slowed Kaierau's momentum at every turn – great sliding defence with a wall which rolls like a wave forcing the home side to go sideways with few chances to penetrate.
After an unlucky offside at the kickoff had them 3-0 down in less than a minute, Taihape absorbed phase after phase of pressure from Kaierau, and then capitalised on a handful of mistakes from their younger opposition - scoring 10 points in less than seven minutes to take the lead against the run of play.
Taihape again proved the masters of big match pressure – Kaierau have not beaten them at the Country Club in this modern era, with their sole Whanganui victory in the 2017 Consolation final being played at Spriggens Park.
Taihape skipper Matt Brown mixed it up with every Kaierau forward he could get his hands on, well backed by fellow lock Hoani Woodhead and dynamic props Hadlee Hay-Horton and try-scorer Wiremu Cottrell.
Jaye Flaws gave another yeoman's effort in the midfield by containing Kaierau's veteran-youth combination of Ace Malo and Dillon Adrole, while taking the pressure of his pack with some strong carries inside Taihape's half.
Cool customer Dane Whale (three from four) was on with the pressure kicks, while Kaierau's fullback and skipper Ethan Robinson (three from seven) will regret the attempts that looked good but just shaved the outside upright.
Kaierau prop Fa'afatai Pulemagafa, hooker Joe Edwards and flanker Cade Robinson made charge after charge in the opening half, as did veteran Lasa Ulukuta when he came on for the crucial final quarter when the home side got a series of late penalties to tap and go - trying to snatch the match back.
But Taihape held them, having gotten only two real opportunities in the second half to register points and making the most of both of them – Whale taking a penalty for an immediate reply to Robinson's third goal for 13-13, and then slippery winger Tiari Mumby somehow twisting his way through tacklers to be driven over the line for what proved the match-winner in the 67th minute.
Looking at them, you would have hardly thought the pulse rates of Whale, Hay-Horton, Flaws, Brown, No8 Tremaine Gilbert, and fullback-turned halfback Tyler Rogers-Holden even quickened in the final nine minutes.
Taihape made turnovers but opted not to clear the ball, instead backing themselves to keep possession inside their own half and run down the clock.
One penalty with 30 seconds left probably caused the heart rates to spike, as Kaierau made carry-after-carry towards the goal posts, but buoyed on by their travelling supporters bubble, Taihape's pack finally trapped them in as referee Ben Lourie raised his hand for the infringement.
"We're better with the ball, and they've got a dangerous back three, but I don't know, I nearly s**t himself, I hate being on the sideline," said Taihape coach Tom Wells of the knife-edge final few moments.
"The boys are really confident in what we've got in our structure with the ball, and unfortunately we gave away another penalty to give them a shot at it, but we'll learn from that to close out the game a bit better.
"We defended unbelievably well. Discipline's still a major work-on, we've gave them a lot of piggy-backs up the field in that first half.
"To finish the game like that...it was just one of those games, eh? Two good teams that are pretty on par with each other."
On par, yes, but Taihape still finished one-under on the back nine, while for Kaierau that long awaited trip back to the grand final will have to wait another year.
"It's just finals stuff. We had our opportunities and they just never quite come off, but all credit to Taihape – they D'd up massively," said co-coach Carl Gibson.
"Just when I thought we were building momentum, they just hung in, so that's a credit to their heart, and I just want to wish them all the best for next week.
"It was a game that could have gone either way."
Taihape could tell Kaierau they had to play a lot of years of Premier semifinals rugby, and a losing final, before they finally broke through as a group to claim a championship.
As this is only the second year of the modern Kaierau side making the playoffs, they have time on their side.
"We're still getting there – we're that close it's not funny, but close is not enough. One day," said Gibson.
"I'm very proud of the boys though, they put everything out there. They tried their best, and no-one's going to ask for any more than that."
Taihape 18 (W Cottrell, T Mumby tries; D Whale 2 pen, con) bt Kaierau 13 (J Durston try; E Robinson 2 pen, con). HT: 10-10.