Brought to you by Wanganui Rugby
There is something about a quality opponent that brings out the "Battler Boys" in Steelform Wanganui, as they snapped Wairarapa Bush's four game winning streak to regain the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup at Cooks Gardens on Saturday.
The only home representative match of the Covid-19 affected season, Wanganui's 29-8 victory was built upon the solid defensive pattern laid out by the entire forward pack - both the starting eight and the four reserves, who all came on fairly early in the second stanza for injured team mates.
They left no gaps around the ruck and forced their fairly coherent opposition into crucial mistakes on the carry, even when they had to play the better part of the third quarter in their own half.
Wairarapa Bush monstered Wanganui in the scrums early, but the home side brought it back with a very strong lineout and better defensive screens at the breakdown, led by skipper Campbell Hart, flanker Jamie Hughes and aggressive lock Josh Lane turning in 80-minute efforts.
But there is not a single forward who did not earn the right to take a bow, showing the patience and composure missing in the loss to King Country last week.
They gave the brains trust time and space to wrest control of the match, with the former professional Craig Clare turning in another signature performance with a try and four from six kicks to register a 14-point haul.
Despite a bloody nose, halfback Lindsay Horrocks backed himself to play more territory rugby with attacking kicks, while first-five Dane Whale produced some crucial clearances from the shadow of Wanganui's goal posts back towards halfway.
The return of winger Vereniki Tikisolomone was much anticipated, and 2019's top try-scorer did not disappoint with a fantastic breakout from deep in his own half to run off centre Josaia Bogileka and score under the posts, while making another long burst in the second half which eventually led to Clare's try.
After moving to the bench this week, Tikisolomone's cousin Alekesio Vakarorogo finally found the space he's been craving this season when he came on for the final quarter, making a series of strong runs before scoring Wanganui's final try off a set move from Clare and Bogileka.
For the visitors, skipper Kirk Tufuga, prop brother Max Tufuga, and centre Teihana Brown had strong although not flawless games, with Wairarapa Bush coming to regret some key fumbles, while lightning quick winger Soli Malatai threatened to tear the outside cover defence apart multiple times - his side really missing him when he came off for a shoulder injury.
Wanganui skipper Campbell Hart could only express his admiration at the side's mental lift in the seven days since the poor effort with King Country.
"Everyone in our squad was disappointed after last week, we knew we didn't play well and let ourselves down.
"Everyone was just keen and excited to prove that wasn't who we are as a group, and we wanted to put out a good performance."
The captain reserved special praise for his men in the engine room, all 11 of them.
"Nothing changed [with substitutes], people just rushed off the line and kept hitting them, and rushed and hit them. That's what we asked and they delivered.
"That was the let-down last week – too much dropped ball and too much trying to push things that weren't quite on, but it stuck today and it showed what we can do when it sticks."
Coach Jason Caskey was also delighted with the working men up front.
"That's what we talked about pre-game - the workrate of our forward pack. They had to set the platform and I thought they did it – that was not just the eight but the four off the bench as well.
"Showed plenty of energy getting up, making tackles. We talked a lot about ratio of work levels, we've been a little bit off, to be fair, and they took it on board and, really, the defence was outstanding.
"Off any structured ball [Wairarapa Bush] had, they run out of ideas pretty quick, because we were able to get up and keep knocking them over, worked hard and didn't stop working."
Nonetheless, Caskey felt there was still a bit more fluidity to find on the attacking side of the ledger, as Wanganui made a couple of noteworthy mistakes as carriers got isolated.
"Second half, it took us a long time to get any play over. We went one phase and lost it, went wide and lost it, and one scrum Lindsay had a dart and lost it first contact – those things hurt because we spent 25 to 30 minutes of the first half without the ball.
"They just had to work hard [on defence], which they did, and got through, which is pleasing.
"The cupboard was a bit empty, so it is nice [to regain the cup]. The boys will enjoy it."
Wanganui opened their account in similar fashion to last weekend as second five Timoci Seruwalu made a solid carry into the 30m, followed by Hughes in support, and as Wanganui rumbled to the line, Hart went blindside with a perfect offload for lock Cade Robinson to dive over, with Clare adding a good kick.
A growing infringement count, especially with screwed scrums, let Wairarapa Bush attack Wanganui's line, but some ineffectual passes going wide saw Bogileka swoop as he ran into space, and no-one was going to catch Tikoisolomone with that much room for 14-0 against the run of play.
Wanting to go undefeated from their five games, Wairarapa Bush needed to settle and when Whale was called offside by referee Ben Lourie, first-five Sam Morrison slotted the penalty in the 21st minute.
Clare was away with a reply attempt, but Wanganui's pack kept them on attack and the fullback made no mistake with his next penalty a few minutes later.
A loose Wairarapa Bush pass off a penalty lineout was nearly snatched by Horrocks, but Malatai seized the moment to slash through the broken line and dash for the corner - offloading for flanker Tavita Isaac to get the ball down in the last tackle at 17-8 nearing halftime.
Sensing an opportunity, the visitors then took advantage of home team errors for hooker Elijah-James Pakoti, Isaac and halfback Cameron Ravenwood to break free down Wanganui's blindside, eventually getting a penalty lineout opportunity.
But the Wanganui forwards dug deep to hold off the drive from prop Lewis Bush and force the error to maintain a key lead heading into the sheds.
After a long back-and-forth third quarter where it seemed Wairarapa Bush might be gaining ascendancy, as several Wanganui forwards went off battered, the key moment came as Brown attacked from a 5m blindside and flanker Johan van Vliet left his offload behind with the tryline begging.
A big Whale clearance to halfway and Wairarapa Bush dropping their lineout throw led to a complete reversal of momentum, as Wanganui No8 Semi Vodosese linked with reserve back Cody Hemi to send Tikisolomone rampaging at the corner flag.
Just stopped by the cover tacklers, Wanganui recycled back to the grandstand side of the park and Clare stepped the last defender to place the ball down with a big whoop, adding the extras to really take the wind from Wairarapa Bush's sails at 24-8 in the 68th minute.
Feeling it now, Wanganui were composed on their defence and with their kicking, despite the visitors never giving up, and after a penalty in good attacking position, they worked a smart play from the scrum for Clare to feed Vakarorogo, who put Bogileka through the gap sideways, and then received the pass back to dive over for the match-winner.
Wanganui 29 (C Robinson, V Tikoisolomone, C Clare, A Vakarorogo tries; Clare pen, 3 con) bt Wairarapa Bush 8 (T Isaac try; S Morrison pen). HT: 17-8.