Bunnings Heartland Wrap
By Jared Smith
Won or lose, with possibly one exception, all the teams in the Top 8 of the Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship got what they wanted out of the final round robin games on Saturday.
On another tight points table, this time from sixth down to 12th place as they all had a mathematical chance at making the Lochore Cup playoffs, incredibly there was only adjustment in the Top 8, as Thames Valley’s tough run in the latter half of the draw saw them surrender their home Meads Cup semifinal at the last gasp.
Tied with Steelform Whanganui but having priority due to winning their Week 1 clash, the Swampfoxes hosted a Ngāti Porou East Coast side fighting to make the Meads Cup semifinals for the first time since 2012.
Knowing they needed the win in Waihi before they could think about a four-try bonus point, Thames Valley built a steady lead through the boot of winger Fletcher Morgan, slotting four penalties in the first half to be up 19-7 in wet conditions.
Two converted tries by East Coast, the 2022 Lochore champions, had their noses in front in the 56th minute, but two tries from the home side in reply seemed to have them safe at 31-21 by the 68th minute and ready to push for the vital bonus point.
Instead, they were left hanging on for dear life as East Coast hit back immediately for a try, and then tried to snatch a match-winner but ran out of clock at 31-26.
However, two bonus points were going to be enough to stay in the Top 4, as fifth-place North Otago were now five points back at the time of kickoff in their game in Greymouth and they had also lost to East Coast back in Week 3.
It made for a miserable afternoon for North Otago, who have remained outside the Meads group since their 2019 title win, as they lost to the Coasters 27-12.
Down 12-10 at halftime, the home side bounced back from the previous weekend’s tough Rundle Cup defeat to neighbours Buller, to emerge with a famous win – their only disappointment being such a good result did not change their position on the table, remaining seventh.
Sixth place Wairarapa Bush held onto their home Lochore Cup semifinal spot and ended Mid Canterbury’s season by hanging on for a 33-28 thriller in Ashburton.
Leading 12-5 at halftime, Wairarapa Bush won their first away game of the competition and got the crucial bonus point to stay ahead of the Coasters and host them in the playoffs in Masterton this weekend.
This triggered a sequence of crazy results where three teams finished tied for eighth spot, including Mid Canterbury, and it was Poverty Bay who somehow snuck through by a points differential only four points better than the Ashburton union.
But it could be hard to argue they earned it as Poverty Bay took on Heartland’s dominators South Canterbury and came as close as anybody to ending their now amazing 29-game winning streak, beaten 41-31 in Gisborne.
However, down 26-14 at halftime, Poverty Bay fought back to only trail 33-31 by the 60th minute.
But once again this season, South Canterbury proved clutch for a key burst of points, as a penalty and then a try in the final minutes kept them well clear on top of the table for the third straight season.
Fullback Liueli Simote scored a hat-trick for the visitors, and they will now have a fresh matchup in their Meads semifinal with East Coast at Pleasant Point.
But Poverty Bay’s sole bonus point proved enough and would have devastated King Country, who despite a superior 3-5 record including an upset win over Whanganui, finished on the outside looking in even after holding off Buller to take maximum points in Taupo, 33-28.
Both teams had a mathematical chance to claim eighth place, with Buller only two points behind Poverty compared to King Country’s four, but it was not to be for either of them – King Country repeating their 2018-19 collapse when they finished in the Meads semifinals the first year, then were eliminated from all playoffs the next.
Results, Week 8
Thames Valley bt East Coast 31-26. HT: 19-7.
South Canterbury bt Poverty Bay 41-31. HT: 26-14.
Wairarapa Bush bt Mid Canterbury 33-28. HT: 12-5.
West Coast bt North Otago 27-12. HT: 12-10 North Otago.
King Country bt Buller 33-28. HT: 26-14.
Whanganui bt Horowhenua-Kapiti 55-19. HT: 34-14.
Meads Cup semifinal draw:
South Canterbury vs East Coast, Pleasant Point.
Whanganui vs Thames Valley, Cooks Gardens.
Lochore Cup semifinal draw:
North Otago vs Poverty Bay, Oamaru.
Wairarapa Bush vs West Coast, Masterton.