Vakarorogo’s five try stunner at Cooks Gardens

By Jared Smith  (Pictures supplied by Kiwi TV)

It was a performance that left the record book out of date and his coach virtually speechless, as Alekesio Vakarorogo was the star of the show in Steelform Whanganui’s march to a home Meads Cup semifinal on Saturday.

The Bruce Steel Memorial Cup was in no danger of the leaving the WRFU offices, as Whanganui ended neighbour Horowhenua-Kapiti’s faint hope of making the Lochore Cup playoffs with a 55-19 shut-out, honouring halfback Lindsay Horrocks in his 100th match.

Although Whanganui took to the Cooks Gardens field deliberately unaware of their North Island rival Thames Valley’s progress in Waihi against Ngāti Porou East Coast in the race to secure the No2 table spot, they had done virtually all they could do by halftime with centre Vakarorogo becoming a one-man bonus point.

In a stunning effort going into the wind, Vakarorogo dashed off for a Whanganui record-equalling four tries, tying with Cameron Crowley, Te Rangatira Waitokia, and Tyler Rogers-Holden.

But none of those other three talented speedsters got their whole quadruple in the opening 40 minutes, raising the very real possibility of Vakarorogo claiming an outright record with an historic five-for.

Initially, it seemed the milestone would remained shared as Horowhenua-Kapiti, inspired by their long-serving skipper Ryan Shelford’s retirement and milestone games for their try-scorers in prop David McErlean (75) and winger Willie Paia’aua (50), played a much more committed and physical second-stanza – with Whanganui subbing off a couple of key injured players.

But they couldn’t stop Vakarorogo, who also set up two other tries and did a tonne of cover tackling, and then with three minutes remaining, broke through his markers on halfway and burned off the outside defenders to make the record his own.

Sitting on eight tries this Heartland campaign coming into the match, Vakarorogo surged up to 13, equalling his Taranaki Bulls family member Vereniki Tikoisolomone (13 in 2019) and is now just one behind the near-mythical NZ Heartland record of Whanganui’s Pati Fetuai – set way back in the inaugural 2006 season.

Coach Jason Hamlin was almost lost for words – not just the five tries but the 30-year-old’s whole range of skills.

“He’s….ridiculous, he’s a talent and that’s…he’s ridiculous. I don’t know what you can say.

“He’s got such a workrate, such an appetite for work. He doesn’t go hunting for that every week, more of that’s a result of hard work [to be in right place].

“He tackles, he cover defends. With him, over the last couple of years, you’ve seen that growth in his game this year and last year. He’s a major talent.”

With Thames Valley winning but missing the vital bonus point against East Coast to now have to make the trip back to Cooks Gardens, Hamlin was pleased by his side’s focus – especially after choosing to play into a howling first half wind and emerge with a 34-14 lead.

“We were focused on being direct this week anyway, with the expected conditions but also the team we were playing.

“We thought if we could just keep punching through them, we’d get some results out of that and obviously that came true in that first half – which probably let that release valve off a little bit in terms of hunting the four try bonus stuff.

“Towards that last quarter, Horowhenua really came after us.

“Young boys coming from the bench are having to do a lot of work, and it wasn’t clean, it wasn’t pretty at times, but they got there – they’re learning on the run.

“We just got to take our hat off to that first 40, and how well the boys played.

“Not super excellent, let a couple of soft options in, but we stuck to what we thought would work, and we deviated a little at times from that.

“But when the message got out to get back to what we’re doing, I think we saw results out of that.”

As well as Horrocks’ 100th game, the match was a fitting occasion for prop Raymond Salu and fullback Peceli Malanicagi to earn their Whanganui blazers for their 15th matches, but Hamlin wanted to single out another of the veterans.

“Jamie Hughes, I thought he was immense in that game – you lose Josh Lane and a Samu [Kubunavanua] and Jamie just keeps doing what he does – he’s outstanding.”

Skipper Dane Whale knew choosing to go into the wind first half would not make his goal kicking assignment any easier, but again he was confident in his team’s ability.

“For sure, it’s been starting so well, so just to get that roll on when we’re starting – ‘we’re into the wind’ – if you want that advantage in the second half to be able to play down there.

“If it hadn’t worked the first time, then you’d start questioning yourself, but that East Coast game went so well for us, you just got to keep rolling with it.

“That game wasn’t perfect, but you’re probably asking too much from the boys for it to be perfect against a team like Horowhenua – they’re kind of helter-skelter, they don’t hold a lot of structure.

“When you want to play a structured game, it’s hard to fire.”

Whale did not want his squad aware of what was happening up in Waihi, with that game being decided right before Whanganui took the field.

“You shouldn’t have to do the maths in behind your head, so we just needed to put out a performance we were proud of, and I thought we still did that in patches that were excellent.

“That’s a building block for the semis next week, and that’s what we needed it to be.”

Whanganui started well as a penalty took them to an attacking corner lineout, and when the drive was held, they moved towards the posts with winger Josaia Bogileka carrying, then quick passes saw Vakarorogo just dive through two tacklers to start his run.

Horowhenua-Kapiti halfback Jack Tatu-Robinson just glanced off the post with a penalty attempt, but when Whanganui cleared the ball, the visitors caught then napping down the touchline with good draw and pass to put fullback Leighton Ralph over for a quite soft converted try.

The visitors didn’t lead for long, as after a promising attacking play was ended when their attacking chip kick bounced out, Whanganui moved the ball from the lineout and Vakarorogo swept through after an attacking kick to gather it and run over 60m to the posts with the cover chasing in vain.

An attacking scrum saw Whanganui march forward again, second-five Timoci Seruwalu driving close, and then in classic style Horrocks threw a dummy and just dived across from the ruck to score in his 100th game.

His cousin Doug Horrocks then made a big line break, and although his inside pass went to no-one, Horowhenua-Kapiti spilled it on the pickup, with Seruwalu and Malanicagi linking to put Vakarorogo over in the corner, Whale making a great conversion in the conditions.

Horowhenua-Kapiti were falling apart as their restart did not clear 10m, and after the scrum and a strong carry by Salu, again the momentum was there for Vakarorgo to go wide and score his record-tying fourth try.

Up 29-7, Whanganui blinked a little as they spilled the restart, and after multiple Horowhenua-Kapiti phases to make it to the line, McErlean burrowed in despite Lane’s protest that he held the ball up.

Trying to close the gap further, Horowhenua-Kapiti went for a risky chip-kick in their own half which Doug Horrocks just plucked out of mid-air, letting Salu carry back towards the posts.

The ball was then transferred through the hands again with Horrocks combining with Vakarorogo to put winger Apolosi Tanoa across in that same corner approaching halftime.

It took a while for Whanganui to extend that advantage further as Horowhenua-Kapiti knuckled down and began putting phases together.

But when a good Whale clearing kick was taken out by the visitors on their own 25m, Whanganui got a penalty following the lineout, taking a quick tap, and although reserve flanker Josefa Namosimalua was stopped just short, Doug Horrocks was there to emulate his cousin by diving through from the breakdown for 41-14.

It took until the 60th minute for more points, again from a tap penalty and again Vakarorogo was the key, as he took a pass from Seruwalu, turned backwards to drive into defenders and flicked it back to Seruwalu on the wrap to run through untouched.

Knowing their season was gone, Horowhenua-Kapiti searched for consolation and found it when second-five Regan Verney made a succession of strong runs, getting the ball to Paia’aua, who was caught short in the tackle but not held, and so jumped up to go place the ball in the 64th minute.

There followed a long period of Whanganui having to defend as they could not get the ball back from the visitors, who worked off multiple rucks and got a couple of penalties to equal that ledger 7-7.

But when Whanganui counter-rucked them off the ball inside the attacking half, Vakarorogo got the pill and bulldozed his way to open space to sprint away and make history.

Whanganui 55 (A Vakarorogo 5, L Horrocks, A Tanoa, D Horrocks, J Seruwalu tries; D Whale 5 con) bt Horowhenua Kapiti 19 (L Ralph, D McErlean,W Paia’aua tries; J Tatu-Robinsson 2 con). HT: 34-14.