Ngati Porou East Coast went to Greymouth on Saturday to do a job — with high hopes.
And the West Coast produced their finest hour-and-a-half of rugby ever against the Sky Blues in this Bunnings Warehouse Heartland Championship to prevail 39-34 in Week 6.
Red and Whites second-five Joseph Scott scored off a super inside pass from his captain openside flanker Steve Soper in the 78th minute to decide the 30th edition of The Coasties v The Coasters.
The Coasters (12 competition points) claimed their 16th win to retain the Arthur Wickes Memorial Trophy at John Sturgeon Park and traded ninth place for eighth place with NPEC. The Sky Blues now have to beat both the seventh-placed Poverty Bay here in Gisborne and then Wairarapa-Bush in Masterton, with bonus points in each case, consecutively.
If they can do that — with a higher points-differential than Wanganui, North Otago, Mid-Canterbury, the ‘Nua, the Bay, and West Coast (those teams also losing both of their last two round-robin matches, without a bonus point for four tries or a loss within seven points, in the next fortnight) — then Hosea Gear’s Sky Blues stand a mathematical chance of a finals berth on November 13.
NPEC head coach Gear, his fellow former All Black Ma’a Nonu and ex-Samoan International Faifili Levave replaced left-wing Teina Potae, second-five Tawhao Stewart and lock Hoani Te Moana at the 53-minute mark in Week 6.
Gear, in accordance with the gains his team has made in the last two years, marked himself and his charges hard on this examination.
“We’ve set ourselves high standards and now I expect us to reach those in every game,” he said.
“We didn’t play well enough, while West Coast played their best game of the season.
“I was pleased in our improvement at scrum-time — Morgan Wirepa junior (assistant coach/forwards coach) and Laman Davies (scrum coach) have done a lot of work with the boys on that. Te Rangi Fraser was outstanding at first-five again: he made line-breaks and scored two tries. Our attack from broken play was good, but we need to finish.”
Former South Island coach development manager for New Zealand Rugby, now West Coast head coach Dave Perrin, was delighted for his gritty, gutsy crew.
“NZR vice-president Max Spence, chairman Stewart Mitchell and elected board member Bailey Mackey were all there and said it was the best game they’d seen this year,” said Perrin, who began his representative coaching career with the Canterbury under 16s in 1993.
“On Wednesday, we talked about what we could do a little bit better. The night before we walked through everything and on the day, we hung in. East Coast played really well in a tough game. Both teams made mistakes, there were big moments and everyone here went nuts when we got home.”
NPEC No.8 strongman Will Bolingford was the Sky Blues’ Most Valuable Player while Soper picked up that award for the Red and Whites.
Soper, who scored for the Coasters on the cusp of half-time, was to break downfield in the 78th minute and slip an assist to second-five Joseph Scott for the match-winning try.
Soper scored three tries in each of his first two seasons for West Coast, four in his third. The ex-Nelson College first 15 wing, who turned out once for Buller last year, had a major influence on the outcome of his outfit’s second-to-last home game of the season with his quickness and stamina.
Pre-match, Soper tossed the coin, the Sky Blues’ game-day skipper halfback Sam Parkes correctly called tails and the visitors chose to play with the sou’ westerly breeze behind them. The hosts opted to kick off.
From the outset, the visitors’ recognised jumpers (fetcher Tanira Tamanui-Nepia and promising lock Gabe Te Kani among them) found the metre gap between the forwards vanish at line-out time against a side who, like themselves, had only one win to their names going into Week 6.
West Coast’s ball-retention, continuity and the line-kicking of fullback Anthony Tailua were features of the game early on, but NPEC opened the scoring with a try to Te Kani at the 10-minute mark. In the lead-up, Tailua had gone long with a kick-restart from the home team’s 22, and his opposite, Hamuera Moana, sparked a counterattack from 11m on his own side of halfway, centrefield.
The Sky Blues first jinked up the right side of JSP before pressing left. Te Kani dotted down 15m off the touchline and with Fraser’s conversion, NPEC led 7-0.
West Coast had shown skill as well as stickability in their 19-18 loss v Wairarapa-Bush at Masterton the previous weekend. They now struck back in the 14th minute with a try to busy right-wing Jacob Lowe. On the right touch at the 22 on attack, rake Trent Lawn found lock Ethan Simpson in the middle of the Red and Whites’ line-out. From the ensuing drive, the home team worked the ball across the ground over four phases before Lowe took a pass from Soper to score in the left corner.
No conversion resulted. Fraser made the next score-change when — at the attacking 22, 10m to the left of West Coast’s posts, in the 17th minute — he kicked a penalty goal for 10-5 to the Sky Blues.
Two minutes after that, centre Sean McClure answered in kind from a distance of 29m, 5m to the right of goal. NPEC then led 10-8.
In the 27th minute, Bolingford, the sort of back-row forward whose immense contribution would be most appreciated by his teammates, scored off a tap-kick by Parkes.
Pressure on the West Coast scrum set 12m into their half, 7m off the left touch, resulted in a kick. Fraser ran the ball back, toed the ball ahead and then chased Tailua down.
From a penalty then awarded by Canterbury referee George Haswell to the Sky Blues — following which the home team was marched 10 more metres — Bolingford scored 11m in from the right corner. Less a conversion, Gear’s Sky Blues led 15-8 up.
The rugby gods then went crazy.
At the 32 minute-mark, Fraser scored 1m to the right of the posts, added the conversion himself for 22-8, before lock Sam Lieberzeit (36th minute) and Soper (40th minute) hit back with tries, both of which were converted by McClure. Lieberzeit’s try was a magnificent effort. The visitors did not secure possession from the restart: West Coast did. They probed and nudged over nine phases before the 6’5” former Manawatu and Heartland 15 second-row forward scored 1m to the left of the posts.
Soper’s try 16m off the left touch was the fruit of a line-out win to Lieberzeit and strong pick-and-go play over four phases, despite hard-hitting NPEC defence.
The score was 22-all at half-time.
Tailua scored the first try after the resumption in the 48th minute, with a conversion by McClure for 29-22. Fifty-three minutes in, Gear, Nonu and Fililava took the field: in the 59th minute, Fraser scored again. Fraser converted the Sky Blues’ bonus point try for 29-29.
McClure kicked a penalty goal under extreme pressure for 32-29 in the 71st minute. West Coast, whose only win this season came against the 12th-placed King Country away in Week 2, did not lack for urgency in Week 6; NPEC’s only win in this competition ended a horror run. And both teams have never lacked passion when the Arthur Wickes Memorial Trophy is up for grabs.
In the 75th minute, NPEC right wing Te Wehi Wright scored: from a tap-kick by Parkes on the left side of the ground, the Sky Blues barged 25m upfield. Parkes cleared the goal-line ruck, right side of the posts, through Nonu to reserve centre Verdon Bartlett and finally for Wright in the corner.
Fraser could not convert from the right touch but the visitors led 34-32.
It only remained for Soper and his mob to put a win at home alongside their win at Owen Delany Park in Taupo.
In the 78th minute, the Coasters’ captain threw a dummy-pass 10m out from halfway, ran another 10, got the ball back inside to Scott, and Scott’s try 15m in from the left corner decided the contest.
McClure completed the scoring, with a conversion for 39-34.
The Sky Blues’ on-field leader at Greymouth knows that his posse could have won the match.
“It was 80 minutes of try-for-try, and while it’s a tough pill to swallow — losing one like that in the dying stages — at the end of the day, the spectators got value for money,” said Parkes.
Soper — who scored The Red and Whites’ last try versus Poverty Bay in Gisborne on October 2 — led his men to a great victory in the highest-ever scoring “shoot-out” (close game) between West Coast and Ngati Porou East Coast.
“We played well as a group,” Soper said.
“We won a great game of rugby.”
West Coast East Coast