This last two weeks have thrown up a wonderful diet of thrilling and nail biting rugby, both here and in Wellington.
The Division 1 and 2 finals at Cooks Garden produced top-class local rugby, topped with a dose of drama that had about 1500 spectators on the edges of their seats for most of the time it took to play two-and-a-bit matches.
Ngamatapouri and Pirates fought out a close 32-20 entree to the main course of Border playing Taihape in the Division 1 final.
Locked at 26-all after the full 80 minutes, the sides then played out two 10 minute halves for extra time, with Taihape prevailing by scoring one more try during that time.
The good news is the quality and intensity of the rugby produced during both games augurs well for the Wanganui Heartland campaign.
The bad news is I have watched a few other finals on Sky television lately and we are not alone – just about every Heartland team final has produced thrilling climaxes – so other teams may also be preparing well for the representative season ahead.
The test match between the All Blacks and South Africa was a classic example of two teams almost cancelling each other out, as each managed only one try each in the game which ended in a draw.
One wonders what may have happened had the teams played extra time.
The rush-defence seems to be a tactic being adopted by more and more teams.
Referees often mention the importance of space in their pre-match talk to teams – that is, giving the opposition the space they need to do what they can with the ball, with the expectation they will receive access to the same space when they have the ball.
Trouble is, the team not in possession will do everything in their power to limit the space the team in possession has, by rushing up in defence as fast as they can.
Players are on the absolute edge of offside lines at rucks and mauls and it requires eagle-eyed vigilance by the referee and assistant referees to police that space fairly.
A similar battle occurs at scrums and lineouts, but at least in these phases of play the backs are separated by a designated space – 5m behind their last feet in the scrum and 10m behind the mark of touch at lineouts.
Both the attacking and defending team must observe these offside lines, but I have noticed that while all the attention is usually focused on the defending team, the attacking backs often seem to think they are allowed to advance early.
I have seen several instances of a halfback at the back of a scrum immediately handing the ball to his first-five alongside him.
How did that player get there so fast?
The answer is he has left the 5m offside line early, in anticipation of receiving the ball. If the opposing first-five had been in that position, he would almost certainly be penalised.
One interesting question brought to the attention of match officials in the Division 2 final was Ngamatapouri pointing out that Pirates players in the lineout were holding their ball catcher in the air for a prolonged period.
Opposing players in the lineout cannot attack the ball catcher until he returns to earth, so by holding him in the air, Pirates were buying time to get organised for the subsequent play.
Maybe they were hoping the opposing backs would advance and be penalised, or opposing forwards would advance past the mark of touch and therefore be caught offside.
Whatever the intention, it had Murray O'Hara scrambling for the laws app on his phone.
We were able to confirm the jumper could be lifted to catch the ball but had to be brought back to ground safely and "without delay".
The following Wednesday afternoon was the final of the local Under 15 competition.
Teams from Whanganui High School and the City, Cullinane and Ruapehu colleges had played each other several times over the past few weeks and it has been a pleasure to see the standard of play, as well as the skill level of players advance over that time.
That improvement was amply demonstrated when WHS and Cullinane clashed in the final at Cooks Garden in what were not the best of conditions.
Both teams responded by amending their tactical approach to the cold and wet – almost succeeding in cancelling each other out.
In the end though, Cullinane deservedly won by 20–12.
These boys learn fast. The night before I had seen a clip on TV from an Australian sports programme where the panel were crowing about Beauden Barrett cheating during the test match by kicking the ball about 5m forward of the mark at a penalty kick while the referee was otherwise engaged.
No mention was made of the swimming.
Cue the Cullinane kicker doing exactly the same thing on Wednesday while the referee's back was turned.
Unlike in Barrett's case, this kicker was unable to convert his ill-gotten gain into points.