A ‘must-win’ for East Coast
Seven lean years are referenced in the good book.
And Ngati Porou East Coast have endured seven hard ones since their epic comeback against Wanganui to be 2012 Meads Cup champions.
On Enterprise Cars Whakarua Park, the Coast came from 27-3 down to win the title 29-27 — the hosts’ third and last triumph in the fixture — having been much closer (9-7 down at halftime) the previous year at Cooks Gardens, though two-time defending champs Wanganui were the victors (30-10) in 2011.
Tomorrow the NPEC Sky Blues take on Wanganui’s Butcher Boys from 2.30pm at the Gardens, in Week 5 of the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship.
The Coast have lost 54-19 to Buller, 22-15 at home to Mid-Canterbury, 43-15 to Thames Valley and 27-12 to King Country this year. An away win tomorrow would be their first against Wanganui in 14 attempts since the National Provincial Championship began in 1976.
This season, Wanganui has lost 28-18 to Wairarapa-Bush away, 36-30 to Thames Valley at the Gardens and 22-21 to Buller at Westport, before joining the winner’s circle with a 36-18 win against West Coast in the River City last Saturday.
The Coast, placed 12th of 12 teams, have one competition point; Wanganui, in ninth spot, have eight points.
“The boys played well last week,” said Ngati Porou East Coast head coach Wayne Ensor, whose forward pack played strongly at set-piece against King Country.
“On another day, those passes would have stuck.
“We’re feeling good.”
While captain No.8 Hone Haerewa, former All Black NPEC centre Zac Guildford and former Taranaki skipper Coast fetcher Mitch Crosswell help set an example for teammates to follow, Ensor is also impressed by the drive of senior players such as loosehead prop Laman Davies, lock Adaam Ross, halfback Sam Parkes and fullback Verdon Bartlett.
The effort and output from the players has been up on recent years; they’re competing hard. No one in the competition wants to lose to them . . . and fear makes people do strange things — such as turn the ball over where and when they never normally would or, by aimless kicking, invite the Coast to run back at them.
Despite turning ruck-ball over egregiously before the break in Week 4, King Country led the Coast 14-0. Turning the ball over to NPEC, however, forms no part of Wanganui’s game-plan. Fine conditions and a hard ground at Cooks Gardens will facilitate hard, fast, open rugby.
“We played for 74 minutes with 14 men last week — the boys stepped up against an unbeaten team,” said Wanganui’s four-time Meads Cup-winning head coach Jason Caskey.
“We’re in a must-win situation. We need to play as a unit with discipline, a high work-rate, urgency. We’ve got to be smart.”
In the home team’s ranks is dangerous halfback Lindsay Horrocks (64th cap tomorrow) who, since 2013, has given quick service. He proved last Saturday — in taking the assist from second-five Troy Brown to score the first try of the second half v then-frontrunners West Coast (14pts) — that he remains an astute reader of the game.
Horrocks often has a big say in Wanganui’s fortunes. He is a player whom the Coast must give as little space and as few options as possible, in the same way that the Butcher Boys cannot afford to let the NPEC back-row wreak havoc around the fringes and take the ball down the middle of the park. Blindside flanker Hoani Te Moana, Croswell and Haerewa are fearless, elusive and energetic to the 80th minute.
That Wanganui in the past 13 years have withstood, outclassed — and been swept away by — their guests tomorrow, is the stuff of legend in Heartland rugby.
The Coast, at this the halfway stage of the competition, want their first win of the season and Wanganui — if they want to qualify for the Meads Cup, send a message to current leader North Otago (17pts), and get back to what has won them six Meads Cups since 2008 — must absorb the Coast’s initial assault and physicality from kick-off.
Field position will be important — Horrocks and first-five Dane Whale both kick skilfully in general play, as does Whale’s opposite in Sky Blue, Chris Richardson. Richardson and Parkes will probe for weaknesses but the quality, quantity and speed of the Coast’s ball is of paramount importance.
The Coast must win enough ball to ask questions of their hosts, retain possession to apply pressure, stay on the right side of referee Curran . . . and do what they didn’t do in Week 4: finish hard-earned try-scoring opportunities.
Stuart Curran, a 24-year-old medical student from Otago, will referee Game 29 between the unions. It is his fifth first-class appointment. He will be assisted by Wanganui’s Kawana Tihema (AR1) and Mark Wilson (AR2).
NGATI POROU EAST COAST (1-22, unless otherwise specified): Laman Davies, Perrin Manuel, Pera Bishop, Scott Lasenby, (23) Adaam Ross, Hoani Te Moana, Mitch Crosswell, Hone Haerewa (c), Sam Parkes, Chris Richardson, Epeli Lotawa, Tawhao Stewart, Zac Guildford, Benny Haerewa, Verdon Bartlett. R: John Brown, TBC, Anton King, Rikki Kernohan, TBC, William Martin, Billy Manuel.