Whanganui shuts out Swampfoxes in Meads semifinal
By Jared Smith Pictures by Kiwi TV
Steelform Whanganui has booked a Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship Meads Cup final rematch with South Canterbury after sweeping aside their North Island rivals on Saturday.
The fourth straight Meads Cup semifinal with Thames Valley was Whanganui’s most conclusive performance in 2023, scoring five tries to none in a 38-3 shutout for the Cooks Gardens faithful and fitting reward for try-scoring hooker Roman Tutauha in his 100th game.
Peaking in form at just the right time, Whanganui was primed and determined they would not take a backward step on attack or defence, in a near polar-opposite display from the narrow defeat to the Swampfoxes in Week 1 on the same ground.
This time, Whanganui’s pack was vowed and determined to not only make the gain line but leave the bigger Waikato side scrambling to keep up when they do.
While try-scoring prop Raymond Salu was at his barnstorming best, equal applause was given out to partner Hadlee Hay-Horton when they jogged off together around the 50th minute – their jobs done at 35-3 after a dominant performance.
Inspired flanker and vice captain Jamie Hughes hounded the Swampfoxes play makers and ball-runners, while likewise giving the full 80-minute effort was lock Peter-Travis Hay-Horton after his partner Josh Lane gutted out his sore collarbone for 45 minutes.
Their fitness matching the execution, Whanganui shifted effortlessly, denying Thames Valley the big hits to wear them out – using either short balls off the ruck to keep defenders guessing who was the carrier, or charging on the slight angles to create half gaps, with the breakdown well protected.
Four successful counter-rucks and three lineout wins off the opposition throw in the first half likewise blunted Thames Valley’s momentum, rapidly running out of ideas.
Flanker Josefa Namosimalua stepped up to fill the shoes of the injured Samu Kubunavanua on defence and in the air, while double try-scoring fullback Peceli Malanicagi relished the firm track as the rain stayed away – scoring off a perfect chip-chase and then backing up a rampaging run by centre Alekesio Vakarorogo.
Playing behind a dominant pack, first-five Dane Whale was able to dictate terms, rattling off all the kicks with a penalty, conversions and snap second-half drop goal, before handing the tee over to older brother Luke.
After Thames Valley halfback Leroy Neel was devastating around the ruck in their last meeting, Whanganui’s Lindsay Horrocks effectively shut both him and first-five Hendrix Beazley down, while Horrocks set up the opening try with a great cross kick for winger Apolosi Tanoa to score.
Similar to Neels, after he scored the match-winning try in August from a chip kick, 50th-game playing centre Harry Lafituanai was well marked by Vakarorogo, while Beazley tried multiple attacking kicks to little success.
The only sour point for Whanganui was a growing penalty count against them in the second half, as well as the duck being broken for receiving cards as winger Josaia Bogileka was sinbinned for a dangerous tackle in helping stop a Thames Valley breakout.
But despite being gifted extra territory and possession, the Swampfoxes just could not find a way through, the 80-minute performance delighting coach Jason Hamlin.
“You got to chuck a blanket [of praise] over everybody today, because they were pretty damn good.
“Our idea was to play some footy, even though it was a semifinal and you can be a little bit more conservative, we wanted to play with the ball because I think that’s the thing that’s got us to this point.
“Being able to hold the ball, we were able to move them around. We were able to just attack weak shoulders and we constantly got them going backwards, which makes your job easier as an attacker.
“That’s been coming for a while, without tipping that whole hog, and hopefully we want to carry this on, that’s the big point.
“Our pack fought for every centimetre, and we fought to take every centimetre off them too.
“It’s hard to single out boys, but Raymond gets us going, he’s working really well and boys feed off it.
“They were still chopping him a fair bit, but he got off the ground and kept doing it, and he was so good for us.
“I say it every week, but Jamie Hughes is just exceptional, his workrate today was [great], and then we probably saw the best of Josefa as well – contesting stuff, running strongly.
“Doug [Horrocks] doing his stuff around marshalling the team. Lindsay and Dane guiding us around the park.
“Peceli, showing what a talent he can be when he gets unleashed. His maturity in his game has just taken off.”
When the drinks were passed out in the dressing sheds, most of the players just sat in quiet reflection – an acknowledgement that as good as the victory was, there is one more job to do.
“The effort and the attitude of the boys was top notch, and we don’t want to leave that here, in a seminfinal, we want to take it to a final, and give ourselves a real opportunity,” said Hamlin.
Another reason for the quieter atmosphere was the team recovering, Whale so proud of their effort from first minute to last.
“We defended when they were trying to score on that left hand side, two or three minutes to go, and the boys are still fighting for every little centimetre they were trying to get on us.
“Working inside, working outside, and everything a fight, so I’m proud of that 80 minutes.
“I think it’s just a collective from 1 to 15 to be honest – the closest person to the ball is trying to look after the ball and I think that happened today.
“It didn’t matter what number was on your back, you were running like an outside back if you were an inside, and right over the park I couldn’t fault anything.”
Whanganui 38 (P Malanicagi 2, A Tanoa, R Tutauha, R Salu tries; D Whale pen, 2 con, dg, L Whale pen) bt Thames Valley 3 (H Beazley pen). HT: 27-3.