by Ben O’Brien-Leaf
Published: August 27, 2019 4:27PM
“It was all we could do just to hang on to the ball — we couldn’t afford to let them play.”
A crowd of 878 fans at Westport’s Victoria Square on Saturday would share Buller head coach Gus Martyn’s take on his rugby team’s 54-19 win against Ngati Porou East Coast in the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship opener.
“Our lock (Samoan international) Jeff Lepa took the ball from kick-off and we didn’t go anywhere for the first two or three minutes,” Martyn said.
“The Coast have big bodies and they’re aggressive.”
Martyn’s team outscored the Coast by eight tries to three, having led the Sky Blues 28-14 at halftime, but those present saw a spirited, committed match-effort from NPEC.
“It was a really fast game but we started slowly,” Coast head coach Wayne Ensor said.
“The scrum battle went back and forth, and we hit the ‘on’ switch maybe only 10 minutes before the break.
“We created opportunities. We’ve got good runners with the ball in hand and we looked threatening every time we had possession.”
Buller game-day captain No.8 Daniel Hytongue won the toss and the Coast began with a strong south-westerly breeze behind them.
The hosts’ high-quality first five-eighth Robbie Malneek scored in the fifth minute, halfback James Lash — in one spot from first-five for injured skipper Andrew Stephens (concussion) — then landing the first of his seven conversions.
The ultra-dangerous Lash added a further seven points in the 15th minute for 14-0.
The Coast hit back in the 21st minute, loosehead prop Hakarangi Tichborne scoring their first try with a conversion by fullback Zane King.
Buller MVP (most valuable player) right-wing Alex Paterson was the next man to score, in the 23rd minute; with the aid of Lash’s boot, Buller led 21-7.
In the 32 minute, home team loosehead prop Jack Best scored. Lash converted Best’s try for 28-7 before powerful East Coast No.8 Mitch Crosswell made the biggest play of the game to that point — for what is known as a 14-point try — in the 38th minute.
NPEC, pressing hard six metres short of the hosts’ goal-line in the middle of the park, turned the ball over on attack. Buller second five-eighth Louis Devery made a long run, with Lash and centre Iliesa Ravudra in support on his left. But Coast fullback Zane King chased Devery — brought him down at halfway — and dislodged the ball. Incredibly, the Sky Blues’ Crosswell was on hand to gather the ball up and run 50m to score.
King converted — to the delight, in particular, of eight East Coast fans who, apropos of nothing, had come from different parts of the North Island to support their team on the Mainland. The score was then Buller 28 NPEC 14.
Tichborne scored again in the 49th minute. He scored two tries in the loss to Eastern Bay of Plenty, two against Bay of Plenty Maori — and two against Buller. On form, he is unquestionably the enemy at the gates opposing teams ought to fear most.
In the 53rd minute, reserve fullback Tim Manawatu — a member of powerful Hawke’s Bay teams from 2001 to 2003 — scored for Buller (33-19 to the hosts) and 60 minutes in, Lash’s second seven-pointer made it 40-19.
In the 70th minute, strong left wing Petala Saukuru scored a try and Lash kicked a conversion for 47-19 and in the 78th minute, the 37-year-old Manawatu — with Lash’s conversion — sealed the deal at 54-19.
But for an intercept 40m out from the Buller goal-line, Coast first-five Sam Parkes might himself have gone in to score, denying Manawatu a double and giving the Coast a bonus point for scoring four tries.
Openside flanker Trent Proffit’s hard tackling and physicality earned him NPEC’s MVP award.
Martyn acknowledged the efforts of Mitre 10 Cup referee Tim Griffiths, of Manawatu, in not overreacting to the toughness of the forward battle, and his clarity in terms of decision-making and communication with the players.
Crosswell, locks Adaam Ross and Scott Lasenby and captain and blindside flanker Hone Haerewa won good ball up and down the chain at both the full and short lineout, while centre Zac Guildford’s organisational ability and energy were also assets for the Coast, who will work hard this week on ball-retention and communication.
In the 49th minute, NPEC were only nine points away from a structured Buller outfit well-led by No.8 Daniel Hytongue, who remarked on the strength of the Coast’s scrum and the pressure created by the visitors’ inside backs, Parkes and Hamuera Baker.
Haerewa has a healthy, competitive unit to work with.
“The boys played really well,” he said.
“Buller capitalise on any mistakes you make, but we’ve got time to iron those out.”
Ngati Porou East Coast host Mid-Canterbury at Whakarua Park at 2.30pm this Saturday.
5️⃣4️⃣ Buller (James Lash 2, T Manawatu 2, Robbie Malneeek, Alex Paterson, Jack Best, Petaia Saukuru tries; Lash 7 con)
1️⃣9️⃣ East Coast (Hakarangi Tichborne 2, Mitchell Crosswell tries; Zane King 2 con).