It was closer shave than they liked, but Steelform Wanganui have set themselves up for a smoother ride towards a possible Meads Cup semifinals berth with two Mitre 10 Heartland rounds remaining, after holding on for a vital 27-22 win over joint table leaders North Otago today.
In search of just their fourth win in ten NPC matches in Oamaru, Wanganui snapped straight into gear at Whitestone Contracting Stadium, working the combinations to open up gaps for standout halfback Lindsay Horrocks and indomitable captain Campbell Hart to score back-to-back tries for a 12-0 advantage after quarter of an hour.
However, having come from behind all season with their 4-1 record, North Otago closed the gap to 12-10 over the next 12 minutes.
Accurate goal-kicking halfback Robbie Smith got them on the board with a penalty, and then winger Taina Tamou dove over in the corner after a nice cross-kick, with Smith again raising the flags from touch.
Reasserting their momentum, Wanganui did to their hosts what teams have been doing to them this campaign – scoring crucial points right before halftime.
Prop Wiremu Cottrell drove over in the corner in his comeback game from a sore AC joint, and while first-five Dane Whale was still having issues with the wider goal kicks, he added a penalty right on the break for 20-10.
When winger Vereniki Tikoisolomone scored his third try in two games, and fifth overall, Wanganui looked home and hosed at 27-10 entering the final quarter.
However, in very warm conditions and against a team who specialise in playing right to the 80th minute, the visitors gave up two more tries, the second right on fulltime.
Veteran prop and NZ Heartland XV player Ralph Darling scored, with former Heartland rep Lemi Masoe, playing his 100th game for the province, adding a quick drop kick conversion.
Reserve Anthony Arty crashed over off the final play, which let North Otago sneak a bonus point and stay in the Meads Cup group for at least this week.
Wanganui ultimately finished the afternoon in sixth place, just one point behind fourth, as the teams in the top 3 likewise pulled off victories away from home, a couple of them only barely.
"There was a few little heart flutters there for a little bit," said assistant coach Jason Hamlin.
"Our first 40, really set the tone for us today, the boys played very, very well.
"We were probably running on fumes towards the end there because she was a hot day, and they're a very good side so they were never going to go away from us."
"With our game plan and intensity, that first 20 minutes we were really on top, then we dipped out for about 10 minutes and gave them 10 points.
"We just picked it up again towards the end of the half."
Both Horrocks and Cottrell's tries came from securing territory and then probing on the brittle fringes.
"I thought Lindsay was outstanding," said Hamlin.
"Lindsay and Dane really set the tone for us early in the first half.
"We thought we could get to that space if we worked it well and if we executed our spots, and in the first half we were really just quite direct.
"Once we turned the defenders in, then we were able to attack the space, which is pretty much, from when we were watching their games – picking and choosing where we wanted to attack them – and it was pretty much the case again today.
"We're about five per cent away from really, really, bursting a game open, but we're not at the moment."
The assistant coach was delighted with Hart's try, right under the black dot.
"That was really nice, just a real bit of skill work there we've been trying to work on with the boys and we were able to exploit a bit of space."
At one point inside that final five minutes, it looked like Wanganui could even finish the round in fourth place, but North Otago's bonus point, along with South Canterbury and West Coast surviving in their matches, kept them on the outer.
However, things look much healthier than three weeks ago when they were languishing in 11th place, while they now face a home match with King Country (10th) and the short trip to Levin for Horowhenua-Kapiti (8th) to complete the round robin.
"We said a few weeks ago, after the first three [losses], 'we've got five games left and in all honesty, we need to be picking them all up and that gives us a real chance," said Hamlin.
"And we need to be winning with bonus points, so we've got to be an attacking team.
"Next week at home against KC, that will present a whole new set of challenges, we'll get a bit of work into the boys and do a bit of analysis and see what we can come up with."
Playing in Oamaru for the first time, Hart had an appreciation for how difficult his predecessors had found Wanganui's geographically farthermost southern trip.
"The way they came back at the end showed that.
"It was good how we got on top. I'd really prefer to stay on top but we've got to give credit to other teams that they'll fire hard as well."
The game proved another occasion when hot weather is following the team around the country, which took a toll in the final quarter.
However, Hart felt the execution is coming into Wanganui's game, as evidenced by their team tries.
"They were what we sort of practiced, to be into some space, so it was good – tries coming from what we've practiced.
"Everyone did their bit, probably a bit weak in the clean out and our d[efence] in the last 20 let us down a bit, that sort of let them in the game.
"A bit of a lack of patience in the second half when we're on attack, but good to have things to work on."
The only further injury of concern was winger Tyler Rogers-Holden's shoulder, with Wanganui backs at a premium after the news Craig Clare has opted for surgery on the tear in his pectoral muscle, and will miss the rest of the season.
Wanganui 27 (Lindsay Horrocks, Campbell Hart, Wiremu Cottrell, Vereniki Tikoisolomone tries; D Whale pen, 2 con) bt North Otago 22 (Taina Tamou, Ralph Darling, Anthony Arty tries; Robbie Smith pen, con, Lemi Masoe con). HT: 20-10.