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East Coast put up a good fight


The Sky Blues did it hard on Saturday.

Ngati Porou East Coast hosted their strongest opposition to date in the Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship — unbeaten competition leaders South Canterbury.

Timaru’s finest, with a maximum 20 competition points, beat NPEC (3pts) 34-12 in Week 4. The green-and-blacks scored six tries to two against the home team at Enterprise Cars Whakarua Park, Ruatoria, to retain the Allan “Smiley” Haua Memorial Trophy they have held since its inception in 2012.

The Sky Blues — placed ninth of 12 teams — held Nigel Walsh’s South Canterbury to a 12-5 lead at the break and NPEC head coach Hosea Gear knows the Coast are close to their first win in the Heartland Championship since 2013.

“Our defence in the first half of that game was outstanding,” Gear said.

“Tanira Tamanui-Nepia (blindside flanker) was everywhere and Te Rangi Fraser (first five-eighth) was excellent again.”

Tamanui-Nepia was named the Coast’s MVP (most valuable player) and won the kaupoi (honorary cowbay hat) at the weekend. South Canterbury hooker Junior Fa’a’vae was named the visitors’ MVP.

Walsh, the green-and-blacks’ head coach, had — before the game — stressed the need for his people to first accept and then absorb pressure when NPEC had the ball on attack, with a view to remaining patient when in possession themselves.

The Southerners’ tactic of making metres off the sidelines, followed by a big push down the centre of the ground, was most effective.

Walsh believes the Coast will win at least two games: “We were happy to come away with the five points — they brought the game to us. We expected nothing less.”

On a picture-perfect fine day at Ruatoria, Sky Blues captain blindside flanker Hone Haerewa won the toss and opted to play from the southern end: the visitors’ skipper, No.7 Nick Strachan, chose to kick off with the wind at their backs.

Strachan’s men opened the scoring in the 12th minute of play. From a five-man Coast lineout 16 metres from halfway on the right touch, Fa’ a’ vae picked up loose tap ball at the tail and made it to within five metres of the NPEC goal-line. South Canterbury halfback William Wright cleared the ball openside. Two rucks that same way later, second-five James Hawkey scored six metres in from the corner. First-five Sam Briggs converted for 7-0.

The Sky Blues struck back in style three minutes later, when — from an attacking scrum set five metres off the right touch, 30m from the green-and-blacks’ goal-line — the home team scored a superb try. No.8 Will Bolingford got the ball up for halfback Sam Parkes, who found Fraser, whose crossfield bomb found left wing Ngarohi McGarvey-Black unopposed 25m from glory. The New Zealand Sevens representative found centre Tawhao Stewart on the run, and he scored in the left corner to close it to 7-5. Stewart’s try was unconverted.

In the 33rd minute Haerewa, a tough competitor, was shown the yellow card by Hawke’s Bay referee Nick Hogan.

From that penalty award, South Canterbury won a lineout set six metres from the Sky Blues’ goal-line, left side of the ground. Tall blindside flanker John Borland won the contest at No.2, the visitors drove on him, and Fa’a’vae scored 10m off the sideline. Briggs did not convert, and South Canterbury led 12-5.

Borland proved his worth again in the 44th minute. NPEC set a defensive scrum 14m off the left touch, just outside their own 22. The green-and-blacks won a tighthead and worked the ball from right to left, then to the centre, Borland finally scoring in the far corner for 17-5 (19-5, on Briggs’s sideline conversion).

In the 48th minute, South Canterbury won an attacking lineout 21m from the right corner. Two midfield surges later, bulky loosehead prop Vaka Taelega scored 16m infield. With no conversion, it was 24-5.

From the restart, South Canterbury put seven phases of play together — a continuation of the linkage between their tight forwards and outside backs, big lock Henry Bruce giving reserve fullback Zac Saunders an assist to scoot 15m down the left touch to score. Saunders dotted down five metres to the left of the posts, and the try was unconverted.

The score was 29-5 until, after 63 minutes, reserve No.8 Siu Kakala proved to be an unstoppable force six metres out from the Sky Blues’ goal-line. The green-and-blacks had won a scrum set 13m off the left touch. Reserve halfback Josh Dearden came at him bravely. No conversion followed.

Haerewa’s men then brought the crowd to life with possibly their best try of the year to date.

Parkes’s long restart went over the heads of South Canterbury right wing Sireli Buliruarua and reserve openside flanker Cam Russell towards the left corner. From a NPEC point of view what followed in the 65th minute was mana from heaven; for the Southerners, it was cruel.

The ball took a high bounce, backwards, into the hands of hard-running Coast reserve left wing Te Wehi Wright. His tremendous effort to follow up and chase Parkes’s kick produced a splendid try. Fraser converted for Ngati Porou East Coast 12, South Canterbury 34, the final score

The game produced dazzling individual performances. Not often is the work-rate or involvement of tight forwards in general play said to be dazzling, but that of South Canterbury locks Henry Bruce and Anthony Mato, was.

Rarely was there a sequence of play for South Canterbury in which they didn’t handle the ball. On the hosts’ side, Fraser’s positional play in defence and near-heartbursting first-half intercept and near-try, brought such a crowd as was in under Covid-19 restrictions to their feet.

But for the odd forced pass and split-second penalty conceded for not releasing the ball on the ground, the Coast might have been closer to the competition leaders. Referee Hogan is to be commended for his calmness and clarity.

South Canterbury’s second-half effort spoke to their tenacity, both sides having fought hard to achieve parity at set-piece.

The Coast knuckled down against a powerful pack, who laid the platform for their team’s three huge wins (by 35, 44, and 72 points) to date. Hosea Gear’s men, in their 100th year, gave South Canterbury their toughest game of the season to date, as the scoreboard proves.

Te Rangi Fraser