Steelform Wanganui have broken their Mid Canterbury regular season hoodoo as they backed themselves on defence to hold off the Cantabrians in the second half for physical 30-12 win at Cooks Gardens on Saturday.
The old saying is attack wins you games but defence wins you championships, and at exactly halfway through Mitre 10 Heartland round robin, an undefeated Wanganui has yet to give up a single bonus point for either conceeding four tries or winning a close finish.
On a sunny Spring afternoon, which meant the Cooks Gardens pitch could stand up to hosting three representative games, the first half went at a frenetic pace with both teams trying to use the width of the ground or chew up territory with probing kicks.
Halfback Lindsay Horrocks looked to set up teenage winger Harry Symes on several occasions with box kicks from the ruck and chips into space, with Wanganui's backs also spreading in the speedster's direction – Symes being twice pushed out right at the tryline corner flag.
Auckland import No 8 Michael Tafili made a big difference with his powerful carries up the middle, including bulldozing his way over for Wanganui's second try, to follow up fullback Craig Clare scoring for the third game in a row.
Prop Gabriel Hakaraia and hooker Jack Yarrall likewise had a strong first 40 minutes.
While the penalty count was ultimately in Mid Canterbury's favour (8-5), they got theirs coming out of their own half and would eventually be forced into a turnover, whereas Wanganui got the favourable whistle from referee Shane Stone while on attack, allowing Clare to pop over a couple of penalties.
Another Symes chase with a brilliant leap and recovery sent second-five Penijamini Nabainivalu away for a comfortable 25-7 lead just after halftime.
But from here, a couple of missed opportunities and penalties put Wanganui back on their heels, given Mid Canterbury are the type of team you can out-play for most of the game, but still lose against.
Although they lacked imagination on attack, they had individuals who could spark something from nothing, and winger Brian Matormusha was a real handful as he came in-field to find the gap and set up Mid Canterbury's first half try, then scored an individual stunner in the second stanza when he returned a Wanganui clearance and sliced through their broken field defence on a 45m dash to the corner for 25-12.
Veteran flanker Seta Koroitamana threatened to break Wanganui apart with a series of scything runs, all-but scoring when he punched through the midfield and palmed off Symes, only to have the teenager come back and drag him down 5m short, with the offload being dropped by the support.
But aside from those moments, Mid Canterbury's bread-and-butter was simple ball retention, followed by one-off carries and then trying to spread the ball on the outsides, where a battle-hardened Wanganui defence broke them down for scrap metal.
Multiple times Mid Canterbury did not only fail to make the advantage line, but were forced backwards 10-15m on each phase – losing their momentum, ideas, and confidence.
You name them, they all did it – Horrocks, Clare, lock Sam Madams, flankers Campbell Hart and Jamie Hughes, the reserves Angus Middleton and Ethan Robinson – everyone dashing forward to wrap up the ball runner or dropping them with a bone-rattling tackle.
Finally forcing a key turnover, Wanganui spread to reserve fullback Tyler Rogers-Holden, who was upended by Mid Canterbury's try-scoring centre Tom Hanham-Carter, earning an immediate yellow card from Stone.
It let the home side camp inside Mid Canterbury's 22m for the final three minutes, the visitors now hot under the collar with several jersey-pulling scuffles, and the Wanganui forwards got the final big tick for their day's work when they drove from a penalty lineout for reserve hooker Dylan Gallien to score the bonus point try.
"That's our technical adviser Peter Rowe – he's been asking for one and we had to deliver," said captain Campbell Hart, who had been a tower of strength for his squad.
To have now played both Canterbury teams and conceded less than 13 points each time is a testament to Wanganui's grit in this campaign, and will serve them well as they travel to play resurgent neighbours King Country next weekend.
"That's what it's been about all season, from the [Ranfurly] Shield game," said Hart.
"It's about trusting each other and there's a lot of trust in our D-line.
"Can't win a season without winning the tough games."
For coach Jason Caskey, he would still like to be putting teams away by staying on the front foot, rather than holding back the tide.
There was "just a couple of disappointing things" like when Horrocks couldn't hang onto an inside pass from centre Kaveni Dabenaise with the tryline open, which created a nervous points swing after Matormusha's great try.
"Just not giving away penalties by getting lazy and getting offside," said Caskey.
"When we defended, they're happy defending and they defended well.
"[But] very happy, it was a timely try right on fulltime.
"We've been looking for that [push over] as well, can't have the backs doing all the attack."
Aside from individual brilliance by Koroitamana and Matormusha, Mid Canterbury's offensive structure was easy to read and when they came into contact, Wanganui made them pay.
"One off rugby, if you get to hurt people [on scoreboard], you've got to offer a little bit more," said Caskey.
A seventh minute Horrocks box kick, with Yarrall chasing hard, fell perfectly for Symes in secondary support, and Wanganui freed the ball for Nabainivalu to go wide and put Clare over untouched, before he added a freaky conversion which bounced off the post and the upright before plonking over.
On their first real attacking chance, Mid Canterbury replied in the 16th minute when Matormusha ran a perfect angle after a scrum win and popped it inside for Hanham-Carter to run to the posts.
The scores weren't tied for long because after six phases of buildup with a penalty advantage, Clare flicked a short ball to Tafili who broke the line, stepped inside and then just decided Mid Canterbury first-five Jarred Percival could be run through for 14-7.
Wanganui kept the momentum and two Clare penalties before the halftime break had them looking good.
Symes not giving up on a Nabinivalu grubber kick into the corner came up gold as the youngster leapt above Mid Canterbury fullback Dan Fransen to keep the ball in play and then feed it back to Nabinivalu for 25-7 in the 45th minute.
But then penalties, lost ball and a couple of surges by Koroitamana forced Wanganui back and when Matormusha claimed one clearing kick, he deftly avoided a diving Symes and then sprinted away from two more attempted tacklers before holding off last defender Madams to force his way over at the corner flag for a brilliant five-pointer.
But Mid Canterbury would advance no further as Wanganui held them in the midfield with unwavering tackling, and after they lost the ball, Hanham-Carter lifted Rogers-Holden beyond the horizontal and was sent for an early shower.
Getting two penalty lineouts from close range, on the second attempt the pack drove off the Madams leap for Gallien to join the maul and score on fulltime.
Wanganui 30 (Craig Clare, Michael Tafili, Penijamini Nabainivalu, Dylan Gallien tries; Clare 2 pen, 2 con) bt Mid Canterbury (Tom Hanham-Carter, Brian Matormusha tries; Andrew Letham con). HT: 20-7.