Brought to you by Whanganui Rugby
NBA legend Larry Bird was once asked by a reporter how he always seemed so calm when he hit the big shots, every time the game was on the line.
Bird replied that when you practised and worked as hard as he did, then you better make those shots.
Steelform Whanganui will be banking on the composure of their playmakers to do the same when they head down to the cauldron of Timaru's Alpine Energy Stadium to meet dominant Bunnings Heartland Championship table leaders South Canterbury on Saturday.
"It's a vital week this week. Last week was a bit of a [points table] moving week, which we got. There was always going to be a couple of changes in the top five," said coach Jason Caskey.
With no lifeline left available to make the top two for the Meads Cup final if they lose, third-placed Whanganui are sweating on the status of their former Highlander fullback Craig Clare answering the bell, despite the discolouration in his injured hip matching their black-and-blue jerseys.
Te Rangatira Waitokia's fractured jaw is at least one more week away from being cleared - the talented fullback visiting his surgeon for a checkup on Friday.
"He's busting to get back in – fingers crossed we get good news," said Caskey.
At roughly the same time, Whanganui will make the call on Clare's fitness, leaving it right until virtually the 1.30pm flight time down south.
"You can't replace that experienced head in these big games," said Caskey of Clare, who because of concussion missed the last trip to Timaru – the famous 29-24 upset win in the 2017 Meads Cup semifinal.
If they have to go without both professional-level fullbacks, it will probably put added pressure on teenager Ezra Malo's shoulders, or Caskey may consider rearranging the first and second-five combination of Dane Whale and Ethan Robinson.
Robinson was just a teenager himself in his second Heartland game for that 2017 playoff but is now beginning to emerge as a real leader, having already taken over the lead goalkicking role from Clare and Whale this season.
With 54 games under his belt including a couple as captain, Whale has also been on point with the boot, including securing Whanganui's first 50m-22m lineout under the new rules last weekend against Horowhenua-Kāpiti.
Caskey said both men embraced specialist kick training, which is understood to have started during club rugby.
"Ethan deserves what he's achieving at the moment. We identified with him and Dane if they wanted to put some work in on their kicking in the pre-season.
"They're putting the time in and reaping the reward – it's paying dividends for us.
"The conversion [Robinson] kicked on halftime into the wind last week – a year ago I wouldn't have put much money on him kicking that, and neither would he."
Both men will be in a duel with South Canterbury's import No. 10 from Tasman in Sam Briggs, who slotted 13 vital points in last weekend's thrilling 33-27 win over North Otago in Oamaru, while one of the try-scorers was halfback Willie Wright, a proven match-winner himself, as witnessed in the 2019 Lochore Cup final victory over West Coast in Greymouth.
Wright v Lindsay Horrocks will be another keen halfbacks tussle, the two men having faced each other in the 2017 playoff and 2015 Meads Cup final, plus a couple of close regular-season games in between.
"Both know each other pretty well, being NZ Heartland players, and being in the team at the same time," said Caskey.
South Canterbury's Lochore win was under then-new coach Nigel Walsh, a proud local with 70 games for the union, who replaced the old regime that took the side to four straight years of Meads playoffs, but never won the title.
Wright, skipper and flanker Nick Strachan, lock Anthony Amato, winger Kalavini Leatigaga and prop Matt Fetu, well over 100 caps, are some of Heartland's best players who still hunger for that cup.
However, Caskey backs his team's record of playing in Timaru, which in fact is better than in Ashburton against neighbours Mid Canterbury.
"For some reason, we seem to play pretty well there. It doesn't hold too many demons for us.
"[But] they've been going well so far, obviously unbeaten, and that's not an easy feat in this competition."
While Waitokia is still missed, Caskey was pleased with the comeback of lock Peter-Travis Hay-Horton last weekend, getting through his shift with no more AC joint issues, while Canterbury import Mathew Taula-Fili has introduced "a bit more grunt" to the tight five.
Kickoff is 2.30pm.