Brought to you by Wanganui Rugby
It is clear at the end of the first round of 2020 Tasman Tanning Premier games that there are now two distinct three-horse races underway.
Both Byford's Readimix Taihape and McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu took a key stride in each race at Rochfort Park on Saturday, as Taihape registered an impressive 10th consecutive road win with their 45-24 victory in the hunt to finish the round-robin on top of the table.
However, the winless home side must not lose sight of the fact that, other than a key period either side of halftime when they played with 14 men and gave up three rapid tries, Ruapehu hung in there with the defending champions and scored more points against them than any opponent this season.
Ruapehu's bonus point keeps the mathematical equation alive that if they can secure more against the other teams in the top three while beating their fellow 2020 minnows in the second round, they could claim the fourth spot and maintain a streak of semifinal appearances stretching back to the early 2010s.
Ruapehu got dragged into a game of force-back in the first quarter by Taihape's experienced heads like Dane Whale - who had an excellent day with the boot in general play and from the tee (5 from 6) - while the other leaders like double try-scoring hooker Dylan Gallien and fellow try collector Matt Brown knew how to follow up busts and brush the white line from close range.
Winger Ryan Karatau continues to make promising strides, scoring for the fourth game in a row, while aggressive young flanker Ollie Rhodes really impressed – smashing his way through on a 35m runaway under the posts.
Ruapehu actually had the better of territory in the first quarter by running back into Taihape's 22m but, after their experienced players had made initial inroads, including trapping Taihape ball or blowing over for turnovers, possession was invariably lost on the third and fourth phases by their young rookies, while halfback Tuhirangi Akapita's professional foul sin-binning hurt.
However, from 40-5 down, those same rookies lifted their game, as Ruapehu took advantage of a series of penalties to tap and go – with diminutive but zippy winger Takarangi Metekingi dotting down twice in opposite corners, while returning first five Kahl Elers-Green shrugged off defenders close to the line for his own double.
Like Metekingi, fullback Logan Blackburn is small and young, but one cannot doubt his determination, while the veteran forwards like flanker Jamie Hughes and lock-No 8 Campbell Hart will keep trying to cover the workload of three men.
"That middle 40, we just didn't play rugby, we were content to kick it back to them," said coach Kim McNaught.
"When you got guys like Dane and Tyler [Rogers-Holden] running that show, they're pretty classy. We'll have to regroup.
"This game gives us something to build on, we just lack a bit of belief.
"We showed that last 20, when we believe we can do it. We just leaked those four easy tries – bang, bang."
Taihape coach Tom Wells was very pleased with the execution through the first 50 minutes but will want to look at why the rub of the whistle went against his side in the last quarter.
"We probably played 20 minutes of rugby out of the 80, and that's no disrespect to Rua.
"Ten minutes after halftime, we probably won't play any better rugby than that this year, but we got penalised at ruck time quite a bit, rightly or wrongly that killed our momentum.".
With the semifinal race well and truly on, Wells had a warning for all teams coming to Rochfort Park for the rest of the season.
"Anyone that thinks they're going to get a bonus-point win against these fellas is kidding themselves.
"They'll only get stronger, as they always do.
"They're only missing a couple of players and, if they turn up, they'll tip some teams up."
Taihape 45 (D Gallien 2, T Rogers-Holden 2, R Karatau, O Rhodes, M Brown tries; D Whale 5 con) bt Ruapehu 24 (T Metekingi 2, K Elers-Green 2 tries; T Akapita con, L Blackburn con). HT: 21-5.