The New Zealand Heartland XV have some work to do as they head to Fiji for their two matches this week, after a 29-19 loss to NZ Marist at Te Aroha's Boyd Park this afternoon.
The Mark Rutene-coached side included Steelform Wanganui captain Campbell Hart at lock, while veteran midfield back Penijamini Nabainivalu was not selected for the first of the three games.
Heartland XV could have used Nabainivalu, as a very strong Marist side got good penetration from their midfield and then spreading out to the wings, with Manawatu Turbos fullback Ben Werthmuller running in a hat trick of tries.
It was the first time Marist have won the annual fixture since 2011, lifting the McCrae Cup in the process, and created an interesting statistic for their Wanganui Marist manager Chris Back, who as the former Heartland XV manager has now experianced a victory with both sides.
"It was a good team effort. Everyone played well, we got off to a good start, two early tries," said Back.
"They came back to us, got one just before halftime.
"We managed just to keep ahead of them, they never gave up, kept coming back at us, we just got far enough ahead."
Having trailed 12-0 after 11 minutes, Heartland had taken the lead 14-12 by the 53rd minute, but this year Marist were able to turn it up a notch coming into the fourth quarter – scoring three tries in the space of nine minutes to extend themselves well clear at 29-14.
"In the past, we've had a good starting XV, but perhaps we lacked a little bit off the bench," said Back.
"But everyone that came off the bench contributed, and we managed to close it out."
Playing on the wing was Wanganui Marist's Josaia Bogileka, rounding out a good season where he made his Mitre 10 Heartland Championship debut off the bench in the opening two matches of the campaign.
"He did all his core jobs well, we took him off with ten minutes to go," said Back.
"It was his first game for a while – obviously he hasn't played since the [Wanganui] Development games – he wasn't out of place, he performed well."
But the stars of the show were elsewhere in the backline, as Werthmuller put himself in the right positions to run in three tries.
Werthmuller had lost much of his Turbo's season to a knee injury, requiring surgery, having played the opening two Mitre 10 Cup games for Manawatu before coming back for their final two matches.
"He's an exciting player. He's been in the Hurricanes set up as a replacement player," said Back.
"[Second five] Chase Tiatia showed his class, he was just outstanding everywhere."
A Bay of Plenty representative, Tiatia had made his Super Rugby debut this season, playing six games for the Hurricanes.
"It just helps if you've got a couple of those Mitre 10 Cup players, Super players, they've just got that extra experiance," said Back.
After scoring the opening try, converted by Tasman wider squad member Sam Briggs, Marist were in again for Werthmuller to get his first try for a strong start.
The Meads Cup-winning North Otago connection brought Heartland back into contention in the 30th minute, when talented fullback Patrick Pati scored and halfback Robbie Smith, the Heartland season's leading points scorer with 109, added the conversion.
Hart played a big hand in Heartland's second try as he received a great flick pass from the sideline to pull in the last defenders and send reserve Willie Wright, South Canterbury's Lochore Cup hero, under the posts for a try he converted himself.
Now trailing 14-12, Marist responded immediately as they worked towards the tryline and the backs then spread the ball for reserve winger Brian Lima Jr, son of the Manu Samoa test legend, to score unmarked in the corner.
Marist immediately attacked down the same left hand side of the field, and this time instead of spreading back to the right, Werthmuller took the ball off the back of the ruck and snuck in down the blindside to score.
The hits kept coming as again Marist attacked from the kickoff, and this time from a midfield set move, Werthmuller came in on the angle and steamed onto the inside pass to dash away for a converted try.
Heartland needed to hit back and would camp in Marist's half, getting a succession of penalties to set for scrums in front of the tryline, but they could not break through until the final play, as veteran Horowhenua-Kapiti winger Willie Paia'aua got the ball down in the far corner.
The team's first match of their Fiji tour is Wednesday evening with the Vanua XV in Lautoka , with their second match on Saturday afternoon in Sigatoka.
NZ Marist 29 (B Werthmuller 3, B Lima Jr, unknown tries; S Briggs 2 con) bt NZ Heartland XV 19 (P Pati, W Wright, W Paia'aua tries; R Smith con, Wright con). HT: 12-7.