Steelform Wanganui coach Jason Caskey has dove into the roller deck to bring a noted representative player from Auckland into the squad for Saturday's must-win clash with the undefeated West Coast at Cooks Gardens.
In a role reversal from previous Mitre 10 Heartland seasons, it is the Coasters running hot on top of the competition, whereas Wanganui have lost four matches in a row for the first time – if also including last year's surprise home Meads Cup semifinal defeat on top of 2019's horror start with narrow losses to Wairarapa-Bush, Thames Valley and Buller.
Fielding a skilful but smaller forward pack than most squads in the competition, and it is the teams like West Coast who are thriving on a bit of muscle up front, Caskey made the call to bring in loose forward Ezra Meleisea, currently bracketed with Samu Kubunavanua to either start at No 8 or come off the bench, chosen ahead of Bryn Hudson and Chris Breuer.
Part of the Pakuranga United club, Meleisea made the 2017 Auckland Colts wider squad, and was later chosen for Samoa Under 20.
He was also been in the Auckland B team and a wider squad member for the Mitre 10 Cup squad.
Highlights packages online show a solid player with a bit of pace, who likes to get on the front foot and throw one-handed offloads after busting the line, although this comes with some risk of turnovers.
"Added him in to have a bit more ball carry," said Caskey.
"We've been a bit too small so add a bit of power at this stage."
Otherwise, in the starting XV, the coach is keeping faith with the squad that was gutted to give up a nine point lead inside the final 15 minutes to get pipped by Buller by a single point in Westport.
The only necessary change is Dane Whale moving back into first-five for Craig Clare, who has a partial tear in his pectoral muscle.
Clare will see a specialist and although Caskey feels he is unlikely to need surgery, the backline general will be missed for at least the next few weeks.
Therefore, Nick Harding comes back onto the bench, and not doubt when he takes the field he will revert to being the first choice goal kicker.
In the other change, Ethan Robinson comes back into the team as the midfield backs reserve, ahead of Josaia Bogileka.
Rather than continuing to make changes, which were partially necessary over the last two games due to the departure and then return of the four members of the NZ Heartland XV, Caskey wants his lineup to settle and build continuity, especially in their strategy to hit the ball into space, rather than be confrontational up front with bigger teams.
"We weren't too far away last week, a few things hurt us. We done enough to win it and should have.
"It's always the same - coulda, shoulda, woulda.
"We can't buy a trick at the moment, which makes things even more frustrating.
"You have to make your own luck."
There are 11 survivors from the team that went to Greymouth last year to beat West Coast 33-21, while captain Campbell Hart would have played if not ruled out at the 11th hour with a knee infection following the plane flight to Hokitika.
However, this West Coast side, coming into 2019 with a point to prove after an illegal player controversy saw them miss out on the 2018 Lochore Cup playoffs, has had their union's best ever start in the Heartland competition.
They hammered King Country 56-27 in Greymouth, earned payback on their 2018 penalty instigator Horowhenua Kapiti by 27-21 in Levin, and last week ran down a 17-point deficit to upend visitors Mid Canterbury in a 43-41 thriller.
"They're going pretty well, looking pretty powerful," said Caskey.
They are led by two NZ Heartland reps in Troy Tauwhare at hooker and 2007-12 Tasman regular squad member Sione Holani at second-five.
Flanker Brad Tauwhare scored a 50m intercept try against Wanganui last year, while fullback Jesse Pitman-Joass has proven himself a clutch player when it comes to scoring points late in games.
Kickoff is 2.30pm, following the curtain-raiser game between Wanganui Toyota Development and Wairarapa-Bush Development.
The teams are:
1. Raymond Salu; 2. Roman Tutauha; 3. Gabriel Hakaraia/ Wiremu Cottrell; 4. Sam Madams; 5. Peter Travis Hay-Horton; 6. Campbell Hart (c); 7. Jamie Hughes; 8. Samu Kubunavanua/Ezra Meleisea; 9. Lindsay Horrocks; 10. Dane Whale; 11. Tyler Rogers-Holden; 12. Troy Brown; 13. Penijamini Nabainavalu; 14. Vereniki Tikoisolomone; 15. Shai Wiperi.
Reserves – Forwards: 16. Dylan Gallien; 17. Kamipeli Latu; 18. Josh Lane; 19. Ranato Tikoisolomone/Ezra Meleisea. Backs: 20. Ethan Robinson; 21. Nick Harding; 22. Karl Pascoe.
1. Tyler Kearns; 2. Troy Tauwhare (c); 3. Daniel Foord; 4. Jasyn Van Vliet; 5. Sam Liebezeil; 6. Brad Tauwhare; 7. Stephen Soper; 8. Amenatave Tukana; 9. Jarred Mitchell; 10. Kahu Tamatea; 11. Nick Thomson; 12. Sione Holani; 13. Sean McClure; 14. Alex Lean; 15. Jesse Pitman-Joass.
Reserves: 16. Trent Lawn; 17. Daniel Davis; 18. Logan Winter; 19. Ben Eder; 20. Jarred Ferguson; 21. Josh Tomlinson; 22. Eric Munro.