There was absolutely nothing in it.
Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau have locked in their first top grade semifinal since 2012, and they did it the hard way after the final exchange of penalty kicks inside a heart-seizing last 90 seconds of play saw them hang on 17-16 against Byford's Readimix Taihape at a damp Memorial Park this afternoon.
Similar to their tight clash at the Country Club on May 3, both teams cancelled out much of each other's most promising opportunities in the steady rain, with the vast majority of play confined between both 22m lines.
Each side clung in to try and get the pivotal spot on a bruising chessboard so their two kings from the tee – Kaierau first-five Shandon Scott and Taihape centre Dane Whale – would have the chance to boot them into checkmate.
Taking all the pressure on their shoulders, from long range and short, Scott and Whale each slotted the gap between the posts with around 65 per cent accuracy – Scott was more willing to make attempts from back near halfway, but ultimately was aided by the fact the home side gave away two crucial infringements inside their own red zone.
Penetrations inside those 22m areas were rare – Taihape having the better of the tactical kicking exchanges through Whale and standout fullback Tyler Rogers-Holden, while Kaierau's pack earned their hot showers with true grit, given it was rare in season's past that they could match Taihape's solid forwards when it comes to turnovers and forcing penalties.
Kaierau has the backline to run but conditions simply prevented it, with the Taihape defenders wisely picking their spots to isolate ball-runners and get turnovers of their own.
Taihape showed great control with wet ball in hand to finally push reserve Regan Collier over the line inside the last 12 minutes, with Whale booting his team into the lead 16-14.
The reply try had been a long time coming from Kaierau scoring in the same spot on their first real opportunity in the opening ten minutes, with prop Raymond Epati getting the ball down in traffic, assisted by lock Josh Lane.
Ultimately, there were two big plays from Kaierau's linchpins which proved decisive in a game where every beaten tackle, or spilled pass, could have made the difference.
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Midway through the second half, Kaierau's previously solid defensive line was caught short out wide and Whale exploited it with a long pass to link with Rogers-Holden and dangerous reserve midfielder Cyrus Paringatai.
In open space, Rogers-Holden seemed certain to score until Kaierau captain Ethan Robinson came flying across and cut him down just short of the chalk, with Kaierau earning a penalty at the breakdown shortly afterwards.
The other big moment came shortly after Collier's try and with Scott having missed an ambitious 45m penalty attempt.
Whale kicked long from the 22m drop out, a match trait both sides followed on drop outs and 50m restarts, but the big man Epati, previously denied any open space by the uncompromising defence, turned on the power to sweep through tacklers on a massive charge back into Taihape's territory.
Consecutive penalties followed for the attackers, and from adjacent to the posts, Scott put his team back in front as the park's scoreboard cleared 80 minutes.
Injury time and Taihape again lifted – pressuring Kaierau's attempted clearances and then running the ball back from their half – to earn a 35m penalty attempt on the angle for Whale to steal the game back for them.
In a heart-racing conclusion, Whale hooked his attempt well left, but it fell close enough for Taihape's chasers to have a crack at regathering, before Kaierau closed ranks and frantically scrambled the ball out for fulltime.
For the victors, their co-coach Ace Malo showed all his guile at centre to cut off a number of set plays by the Taihape backline brains trust in second-five Jaye Flaws and the Whale's – Luke and Dane.
No 8 Joe Edwards gave a gusty 80 minute effort with constant carries and good ball control back at sweeper for Taihape's clearing kicks near the sideline.
For the home side, crafty halfback Ra Broughton made his opposite number Cameron Davies have an uncomfortable first half at the back of the scrum, while almost catching defenders out with quick taps and scoots from the breakdown.
Flanker and captain Matt Brown had a standout performance, really pressuring Kaierau's lineout jumpers and getting a couple of steals.
Both teams were so evenly-matched that even when key players had to be subbed, the opposing bench players came in and made significant contributions – proving the adage the XV which finishes a match is just as important as the XV that starts.
After a game where the teams could barely be separated from the first minute to the 81st, both Kaierau co-coach Carl Gibson and his opposite Tom Wells could only credit their opposition.
"You can't praise Taihape enough," said Gibson.
"They cancelled everything we did out, and we did the same to them.
"Raymond with that carry back was what won us the game, at the end of the day.
"Coming to Taihape and coming away with a win is huge for us. It's been a long time since we've done it."
Wells had much the same mindset as he tried to put his finger on any one factor that denied his team the win.
"They're a good side. Credit to them, I thought both sides played really well.
"Maybe they got a kick more than us on the penalty count. It was a tight game.
"Once we got that lead, all we needed was to stay disciplined, but three penalties in five minutes.
"These two sides are definitely semifinal worthy. It was a good game of rugby in adverse conditions."
While the loss on Saturday really stung, there was no need to panic as other results still lined up Taihape's way.
Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist's defeat to Waverley Harvesting Border allowed Taihape to stay in the Top 4, while they can now finish the 2019 round-robin how they started – with a return game against Border to regain the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield they lost to them back in April, also by one point.
"Just got to get the win for the momentum," said Wells.
Taihape had the better of the early moments until a kick out on the full, with Kaierau then attacking through winger Pene Vui to get to the tryline, and Epati forcing the ball down through the pile up.
The home side reset and hit back immediately with a Whale penalty, and both Whale and Broughton were watching for weaknesses in the Kaierau defence, as a couple of tap kicks left defenders offside for 6-5 in the 29th minute.
Both Scott and Whale traded missed kicks before halftime, but Scott adjusted his sights straight after the break to regain the lead, as the game took on a yo-yo action of Taihape kicking smartly for territory, while Kaierau hung tough to keep pushing back either through the middle or the fringes.
Kaierau earned another penalty from about 25m out in front, and Taihape did themselves no favours with backchat to referee Glen Collins, gifting Scott another 10m to make it 11-9.
Scott's diving mark near his tryline on a chip kick by Taihape winger Te Rangitapu McLeod and Robinson's try-saving tackle on Rogers-Holden both book-ended a Whale penalty miss, as the home side just couldn't quite crack the visitors.
Scott missed an ambitious penalty attempt from 45m himself, but as the rain picked up, a loose Taihape scrum pass had them scrambling and saw yet another holding penalty, and this time the Kaierau kicker seemingly gave his team the decisive advantage at 14-9 with 11 minutes left.
Instead, Taihape dug deep, forcing a turnover from the kickoff and feeding reserve lock PT Hay-Horton, who stepped out of a tackle, which led to a series of drives from the ruck for Collier to force the ball down and Whale to add the pressure conversion.
It wasn't looking like Kaierau's day when Scott missed another 40m angled penalty attempt, but Epati's stunning run earned him another chance and set off a pulsating final 90 seconds of play.
Kaierau 17 (R Epati try; S Scott 4 pen) bt Taihape 16 (R Collier try; D Whale 3 pen, con). HT: 6-5 Taihape.