Brought to you by Whanganui Rugby
Experience and home turf knowledge told in the Steelform Whanganui representative trial at Taihape's Memorial Park on Saturday as a more cohesive Country ran away with a big 50-20 win over Town.
Guided by the fresh Taihape playmakers, who had a week's break after missing out on the Premier final, Country also had a slightly larger squad, as not every invited Town player attended – ultimately about 45 out of the original 61 selected took part.
As expected in a four-quarters game with a lot of unfamiliar combinations, the match saw a lot of individual commitment but not much continuity - with mistimed passes, fumbles, and ruck penalties inevitable.
But eventually Country took control, especially in the fourth quarter as the scoreline blew out – with Dane Whale and Tyler Rogers-Holden able to fire confident cut-out passes while Kameli Kuruyabaki, their former clubmate back from Manawatū, has not lost a step.
Running with the ball in one hand, Colin Meads-style, Ben Whale powered over for a hat-trick of tries.
Town had a lot of young Marist and Kaierau players, so there was plenty of speed but less setting up for repeat phases or adjusting in the moment, which is where Country's veterans excel.
Three of Town's four tries came from the champion Border players – Andy Hamilton having a strong match.
Cade Robinson made some big line carries, although the backline would have missed the steady influence of Josaia Bogileka after he sustained an early back injury.
Another concern was the stinger for incumbent Whanganui captain Campbell Hart, who came off for Country before halftime and remained sidelined.
Other strong performers for Country were Gabriel Hakaraia and Joeli Tora, both scoring tries and making some powerful runs.
"The Town team were a little bit disadvantaged because they had young boys, like Rangi [Kui] when Ethan [Robinson] pulled out," said Whanganui coach Jason Caskey.
"You've got Dillon Adrole and Ezra Malo, you haven't got guys who are good communicators and talkers – you see the difference with Dane and Luke Whale, Tyler, plenty of guys doing a lot of talking.
"But they hung in and battled away, some good things, but probably one team had a lot more direction.
"Some good intent. The defence, especially in the first 40, was pretty good, putting pressure on, but it started breaking up a bit in the end.
"That's what you want – good intent – you're not going to see too much structure in a game where they had one training and not all of them could make training, so pretty happy with what we've seen."
Ultimately, with more representative levels available without the disruption of Covid-19, Caskey and his fellow selectors plan to take around 26 for the Heartland Championship squad.
They will likely carry a few extra in the first two weeks of pre-season, starting with Taranaki Development XV in Hāwera this Saturday, then a Hawke's Bay camp to meet the Saracens.
The coach said they may also include a couple of apprentice players – one forward and back.
"You get too many guys, they start to get a bit down in the mouth if you can't give them game time.
"In 2019, we lost the first three games, so you've got no leeway to do that, you're under the pump the whole way."
Pressuring the breakdown and Town's passing channels, Country controlled territory early and were rewarded when Dane Whale pulled a switch play from a 5m scrum, with big "Jim" Timoci Seruwalu reaching over his tacklers to plant the ball – the trial not having conversions to allow more time for ball in play.
There was no further scoring in the first quarter, and then Town replied when Malo swept down the far touchline and found Nick Harding inside to score, before Country regained a lead they would never relinquish as Ben Whale sent Roman Tutauha charging at the line. He was stopped just short and Utiku's Mark Coogan secured the ball to score.
A Kuruyabaki burst set his team loose again, and although Town deliberately knocked the ball down, Country regained it for Ben Whale to fend his way through before halftime.
Country then began to stamp their mark against tiring opposition, as they drove from a penalty lineout to put Tora over, then after Town lost possession in their half, Kuruyabaki cut through the broken defensive line and fired a long ball for Rogers-Holden to race away.
Cade Robinson appeared to have scored but Town were called back for a fumble at the previous phase, yet they stayed on the attack, spreading to both sides, and eventually, Hamilton found the angle to dash through for a try rewarding his efforts.
Ben Whale and Tora combined to attack Town's blindside following a kick return, with Kuruyabaki stepping his way back towards the posts where Hadlee Hay-Horton arrived to power across on three-quarter time.
With some players tiring and others still fresh from rotation, the gaps opened in the final 20 minutes, as Country winger Ioane Hough-Aki made a long sideline run, with Kuruyabaki again in support to work back to the middle, finding Rogers-Holden, who was stopped and left it for Hakaraia to dive over.
At 35-10, Town didn't quit, as after Robinson made a couple of hit-ups, they spread the ball and Harding found Kui inside for the young speedster to dash away.
But like Hough-Aki, another transplanted Marist player stepped up for Country, as Jack Yarrall ripped back possession in Town's half and bumped off two defenders, allowing Rogers-Holden to set up Hough-Aki to score.
The Whales were now ruthless as both Dane and Ben ran Town's clearances back hard, with Ben charging from near halfway to beat the cover defence and dot down.
Country gave Town one gift when they fumbled an overthrown lineout ball into Kieran Hussey's hands, as he dashed from the 22m to the tryline, but Ben Whale had the final say as he received a tapped penalty and smashed straight through for his hat-trick.
Country 50 (Ben Whale 3, Timoci Seruwalu, Mark Coogan, Joeli Tora, Tyler Rodgers-Holden, Hadlee Hay-Horton, Gabriel Hakaraia, Ioane Hough-Aki tries) bt Town 20 (Nick Harding, Andy Hamilton, Rangi Kui, Kieran Hussey tries). QT: 7-0. HT: 15-5. 3/4T: 30-10.