By Jared Smith
The Meads Cup stays in Crusaders country for the third straight season as a gutsy Steelform Wanganui could not hold off the green ‘n black tide, South Canterbury winning 40-30 at Temuka Domain on Saturday.
In the first top flight Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship final rematch since 2011-12, Whanganui knew their vaunted opposition on a 30-match winning streak had the firepower to put together back-to-back points scoring plays, a trademark of their season where they trailed at halftime of five occasions.
Facing windy conditions and a passionate, at times overzealous home crowd, after a nervous start Whanganui got the momentum they wanted early with some great carries and pressure, taking a 15-6 lead in the 31st minute.
But this time the dreaded scoring burst came on either side of the break – 22 unanswered points to put the Cantabrians clear 28-15, and it was a lead they would never surrender despite Whanganui gamely fighting their way back into match, at one stage trailing only 33-30 with nine minutes remaining.
However, against South Canterbury discipline and control at the breakdown has to be absolute, as a 13-7 penalty count against the visitors proved costly – the most contentious of which was when Whanganui has hot on attack after their last try but pinged for lifting above the horizontal in the cleanout.
South Canterbury turned the screws – booting the underdogs back into their half and camping there for the remainder of the match – reserve forward Solomone Lavaka scoring off the pick-and-go beside the posts.
It proved the perfect metaphor for the whole game – three of South Canterbury’s five tries were from the final pick-and-go right on the line after Whanganui had produced try-saver after try-saver.
Powerful No8 Siu Kakala was denied multiple chances to tie the Heartland season record of 14 tries just as much as Whanganui’s dangerman Alekesio Vakarorogo was, while lock Anthony Amato was somehow stopped a blade of grass under the posts and second-five Paul Fifita was put out right at the corner post, both in the first half.
Yet with their deeper resources, South Canterbury just always had that one more support player on hand to be one good shot better, the signature Crusaders way that their decorated coach Nigel Walsh has perfected for Heartland from his time with the Super Rugby franchise.
Their kickers in first-five Sam Briggs (15 points) and try-scoring halfback Willie Wright harnessed the wind for two 50-20 punts late in the first half to keep the pressure on, with flanker Loni Toumohuni and winger Kalavini Leatigaga both dotting down, before Leatigaga got his double straight after the break after combining with fullback Liueli Simote in an outstanding attacking play.
So many Whanganui players deserved better after such a massive effort.
Try-scoring prop Raymond Salu matched and often exceeded South Canterbury’s ball runners, so much so that when reserve hooker Alesana Tofa was injured late in the game, Whanganui tried to sub him back on.
Having stepped into the shoes of Samu Kubunavanua, 20-year-old flanker Josefa Namosimalua literally grew up before his supporter’s eyes – the number of carries and cover tackles he made uncountable.
Fellow flanker Jamie Hughes chop tackled the big men, while second-five Timoci Seruwalu scored a great opening try and had a big hand in the buildup to Salu’s try.
Winger Apolosi Tanoa scored in consecutive games and cut down so many South Canterbury opportunities on the fringes, while skipper Dane Whale also finished with 15 points as he fought so desperately to bring the national title back to his union.
“Just another great final to be a part of. Obviously we were on the wrong side, but a great South Canterbury team,” Whale said at the trophy presentation.
“I’m very proud of this group of men, we’ll stick together tonight and reflect on the season that’s been.”
South Canterbury have now joined Whanganui as the only teams to win a Meads Cup three-peat – they have been the team of the 2020’s in much the way their opposition were the team to beat for most of the 2010’s.
“To Dane and the boys, that was a hell of a battle out there, and a real testament to the final it was,” said their skipper Wright.
“You gave it everything and there’s going to be some sore bodies tomorrow.”
Having taken Whanganui to back-to-back finals against South Canterbury in his first two seasons as head coach, Jason Hamlin was left with the hurt of once again so close, but so far.
“The gap is closer than it’s ever been with these guys.
“The boys played well and put the effort in. Super proud of them, everyone’s feeling a bit down.
“Probably discipline – didn’t hold them. When we held the ball we were good on that, made them look as average as that side can look.
“But we didn’t exit as well as we should have. The try before halftime and after halftime killed us.”
Hamlin had shook his head at the dangerous cleanout penalty against his side with five minutes to go, especially considering in the first half South Canterbury lock Tevita Ahokovi had virtually body-slammed Whale after pushing him back about a metre behind the breakdown.
“Jeepers that was a hard one to swallow. If you can call it then, you can call it every time.”
Whanganui had the early territory although a couple of fumbles prevented them taking advantage of it, until sustained pressure from the forwards led to a penalty opportunity for Whale to slot in the 13th minute.
The visitors then uncorked some razzle-dazzle as from an attacking lineout, Vakarorgo broke through his marker and offloaded to Tanoa, who threw a speculator pass over his head which Seruwalu grabbed on the bounce and rampaged down the touch to score in the corner.
Briggs replied with 21st and 28th minute penalties after Whanganui had gamely defended their line, but with lock Josh Lane and hooker Roman Tutauha regaining the restart, the forwards led by Salu again worked their way forward, and with the defence stretched, Whale shaped to pass and then stepped back inside to run under the posts.
Tanoa just stopped Fifita scoring the corner, but Kakala and Fifita instigated another raid down that same side, before flanker Finlay Joyce worked back to the middle, and then centre Zach McKay linked with Toumohuni, who threw the dummy and dashed through to run under the posts.
The Cantabrians now had their blood up – prop Vaka Taelega all but scoring in the corner – with Briggs returning to the penalty spot to put his side ahead.
With less than two minutes left until halftime, a Briggs 50-20 from inside his own 22m saw South Canterbury play text-book rugby from the lineout, and finally, after McKay was just stopped on the tryline, Leatigaga dived through for a crucial seven pointer.
It got worse for Whanganui after the break as Leatigaga got free down the touchline, setting up Simote inside who ran the angle and popped it back to his winger to score in the corner.
Whanganui had to be next scorers and they were – fresh reserve hooker Tofa taking his carries along with Salu, Namosimalua, and prop Hadlee Hay-Horton, before Seruwalu was fending off defenders near the tryline, and Salu took the ruck pass to power his way over.
While Whale missed the conversion, he slotted a penalty on Whanganui’s next incursion into South Canterbury’s half, and it was game on at 28-23.
But after a succession of busts by Kakala, after Whanganui lost possession coming out of their 40m, with Ahokovi beating two tacklers to reach the dangerzone, the pressure was back on.
Kakala was once again stopped just short, but Wright sniped his way through to again take his side clear with 20 minutes left.
Reserve lock Matt Ashworth coming on and immediately stealing South Canterbury’s attacking lineout let Whale spread wide through Vakarorogo, with winger Josaia Bogileka attacking right into the corner.
Whanganui ended up with an attacking scrum and spread the ball again, with Tofa feeding Namosimalua to put Tanoa over in the corner, Whale landing a clutch sideline conversion for 33-30.
Whanganui had momentum, but the contentious ruck penalty put them back on their heels and after relentless buildup in the 10m zone, South Canterbury’s reserves coming to the fore, Lavaka dived over for what proved the match-winner with four minutes remaining.
South Canterbury 40 (K Leatigaga 2, L Toumohuni, W Wright, S Lavaka tries; S Briggs 3 pen, 3 con) bt Whanganui 30 (T Seruwalu, D Whale, R Salu, A Tanoa tries; Whale 2 pen, 2 con). HT: 23-15.
NPC: There were a couple of former Steelform Whanganui players who had an enjoyable weekend as the Taranaki Bulls defeated Canterbury 23-16 on Friday night in New Plymouth to book themselves a Bunnings NPC championship final spot this coming Saturday. Expat halfback Adam Lennox scored a try while fullback and former Whanganui player Stephen Perofeta slotted two late penalties to take his team clear. Another former Whanganui standout in Vereniki Tikoisolomone was the outside backs reserve.