Steelform Wanganui are back in the playoff conversation after their 11 try runabout over an erratic East Coast for a 67-24 win on a warm Saturday for scrappy footy at a sunny Cooks Gardens.
Good results came towards Wanganui across the board in the fifth round of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship, as they were the only team to beat an opponent below them on the table – creating a log jam where they have moved from ninth place to seventh, but only five points away from the top.
Still hunting for their first win since 2013, a fatalistic East Coast are not trying to make do with players they haven't got – foregoing technique and structure in the set piece in favour of wide-open running rugby for as long as their conditioning holds out.
They spread the ball even inside their own 22m, and until the final quarter, when they did kick it was usually in space for chasers.
Risky passes were always on, although only collected about half the time, and this created a broken field style of match which was perfect for Wanganui's instinctive attacking players like winger Tyler Rogers-Holden and deceptively quick reserve prop Raymond Salu, who scored six tries between them.
Rogers-Holden's four tries in one game were the first for Wanganui since Te Rangatira Waitokia against Poverty Bay in September 2016, with the now Manawatu-based winger watching from the corporate boxes.
Flanker Jamie Hughes, as usual, was the busy beaver on cover defence, while lock Peter Travis Hay-Horton gave a solid 80 minute performance on a hot day with a reliable lineout effort and some strong carries around the pitch.
Along with Rogers-Holden, Hay-Horton and hooker Dylan Gallien getting his first start in 2019, it turned out to be a good match for the whole Taihape contingent, because although his goal kicking radar was back on the fritz (three from eight), first-five Dane Whale had the time and space to either fend and go himself or fire off his favourite left side wide passes.
The only downside for assistant coach Jason Hamlin was Wanganui going to sleep on a couple of occasions, notably in East Coast's first try to athletic winger Epeli Lotawa off a 50m restart which the home team had studied beforehand, as well as midfield lapses leading to two more scoring plays.
Remembering 2017's Meads Cup-winning season where Wanganui had scraped into fourth place, Hamlin knew how important a big points differential can be from games where you half expect a blowout.
"[East Coast] not too different to what we'd seen on the video.
"We probably didn't fold enough [on defence] to negate it. It's hard to be critical of 67 points, but we could have had 80 points today.
"But today we get a result, the earlier games we didn't get a result, which was execution.
"In the little areas where we can attack, we looked really good.
"If you can bring on a prop [Salu] who can bust and then run 30m, it helps."
Subbed midway through the second half, captain Campbell Hart still had to let out a "whew" when describing the helter-skelter ball movement under the blue skies.
"Hot, and I thought last week was hard.
"You heard them say, 'out wide' – they wanted to spread us wide where it's hard to make a dominant tackle.
"Messy sort of game, we let them get a few points.
"But for us, it's another step on the [semifinal] journey."
Winning the coin toss and taking the breeze, Wanganui opened their account in the fourth minute as winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone came into the line after a 22m lineout and ran the angle to fend off the last tackler and score.
East Coast were penalised for a string of high tackles, putting Wanganui down in the pocket again, and after Whale made the inside pass for Hughes to work their way towards the posts, the ball was spread for centre Ethan Robinson to put Rogers-Holden in at the corner for 12-0 in the 10th minute.
But East Coast immediately tried the reverse kickoff towards their backs, as former All Black Zac Guildford ended up with the ball to pop up for Lotawa and go over the line less than 45 seconds later.
A penalty at the ruck from the next kickoff put East Coast on attack again, with Wanganui halfback Lindsay Horrocks having to dash wide to cut down a four vs one overlap, but the play was under advantage and East Coast's halfback Sam Parkes went back in front for an easy penalty at 12-10.
Looking to flip the script, East Coast got more penalties to stay on attack, with fullback Verdon Bartlett and No 8 Hone Haerewa looking dangerous, until the visitors coughed up the ball midfield and Wanganui prop Kamipeli Latu snatched it to dash off into the other 40m.
Latu found second-five Troy Brown in support, who turned it wide for Rogers-Holden to fend out of a tackle and sprint off to the corner.
Wanganui stayed on attack, assisted by East Coast handling errors and then a penalty scrum, and the bonus point try was all-Taihape, as Whale ran from a 3m ruck to link up with Gallien and Hay-Horton, whose short passes sent Rogers-Holden in to shrug out of a high tackle and causally bend down to place the ball beside the flag.
At 22-10 it seemed East Coast might start fading, but instead Bartlett snatched up a risky Wanganui offload on halfway and charged back towards the centre, finding Parkes coming on the angle to go inside Tikoisolomone and run under the posts for a try he duly converted.
It was the fifth game where Wanganui have given up late first half points, but at least this time at there was still 180 seconds left for a reply, and they got it after East Coast spilled Rogers-Holden's chip kick, allowing a series of phases off the scrum win to set up No 8 Ezra Meleisia getting his first Heartland try.
New Auckland import Amos Pogia played the second-half at centre with Robinson moving back into second-five.
Wanganui got an early penalty to swing onto attack, with Hay-Horton, Hart, prop Gabriel Hakaraia and the just-arrived Salu all having a crack at the line, before East Coast infringed and Hughes took the quick tap to force the ball down in the 48th minute.
Another series of carries brought Wanganui back into the 35m and when Salu slipped through one tackle, he had all the space needed to canter away and wrong foot the surprised cover defence to score for the third straight game.
Spreading from the kickoff through Horrocks and reserve hooker Roman Tutauha, Tikoisolomone headed off down the tram-lines, feeding the ball back to Tutauha to get into the 22m.
The play worked so well that two phases later Wanganui tried it again, with Tutauha to Tikoisolomone, who fended off the last defender to get his double.
Fullback Shai Wiperi returned an East Coast clearing kick and found space, feeding Tutauha, who popped the ball to Salu to power out of one tackle and dive over, but he was ruled to have been held up in-goal after injuring his shoulder.
It mattered little as following a short break, Wanganui spread the ball from the scrum, and then Whale feed a recovered Salu, who slipped back inside the defenders grasp to dive over for the try he has missed – replacement fullback Nick Harding taking over the goal kicking for 53-17.
Reserve halfback Cameron Davies went for a art from the ruck to take his team back over halfway, with Hay-Horton carrying the recovered loose pass onto attack.
From close to the tryline, reserve flanker Samu Kubunavanua dived low and reached out with his long arm to score, following touch judge confirmation.
With ten minutes left, East Coast still desired a bonus point and took advantage of a Wanganui forward pass to transfer the ball from left to right of the scrum win, with Haerewa stopped just short of the tryline, before prop Perrin Manual burrowed his way over, well converted by Parkes.
A great chip kick from Haerewa after East Coast ran out from their 30m only just bounced away from Lotawa, or else the visitors would have had their fourth try.
Whale then snatched an inside pass off East Coast flanker Mitchell Crosswell, one of a handful of passing errors he made, to dash into East Coast's 40m area, and then from the ruck, the ball was spread by Harding to Rogers-Holden to step back infield and run with the ball in one hand to complete his quartet of tries.
Wanganui 67 (T Rogers-Holden 4, V Tikoisolomone 2, R Salu 2, E Meleisia, J Hughes, S Kubunavanua tries; D Whale 3 con, N Harding 3 con) bt East Coast (E Lotawa, S Parkes, P Manuel tries; Parkes pen, 3 con). HT: 29-17.