“Happy with where we are, but we’ve got a lot to work on!”
That’s Copthorne Wairarapa–Bush coach Reece Robinson’s summation after the team played their get-of-jail-free card and held on for a 32–31 win over Ngati Porou East Coast in the opening round of the Heartland Championship at Trust House Memorial Park on Saturday.
East Coast took advantage of some sloppy Wai-Bush play in the first spell to lead 21–14 at halftime and then 31–27 with less than 10 minutes left on the clock when fullback Andre Taylor set the game alight with a stunning 40m solo run and pinpoint pass for replacement winger Nathan Hunt to score in the corner and give the home side the lead for the first time.
The visitors had their chances to snatch victory with two penalties, the first from 45m on a wide angle, but fullback Renata Roberts-Te Nana’s attempt brushed the underside of the crossbar, and the second from 25m on a wide angle sailed across the front of the goalposts.
“The guys showed a bit of resilience in that last 10 to 15, but as I said to you last week, if we’re going to go deep into this competition, we need a bit of luck whether it’s the bounce of the ball, the ref or stuff like that,” Robinson said.
“I think we had a bit of luck with that guy missing those two kicks, and at the end of the day, we’ll take the win, but there’s plenty to work on. Rugby’s about opportunities, and they missed a few opportunities, but so did we, with final passes and stuff like that.”
Robinson admits to being frustrated with the team’s performance at halftime, especially around the breakdown.
“We spoke about how we wanted to play before the game, and the key thing was around our ball carrying and how we had to be really strong on that carry, but also our first and second arriving players had to punch through the holes, but unfortunately in that first half there was too much space and distance between the ball carrier and the first and second arriving player, and they got a bit of joy and quite a few turnovers and slowed our pill down, and that’s probably where we were a bit frustrated.
“We knew we were a lot better than that, but it was just getting the message across to the boys again, making sure we did the little things right. We addressed it at halftime, but even in the second half, we could’ve been a little bit tired or a bit lazy, but we’ve got to be a lot better than that if we want to tip over North Otago.”
Some of the frustration stemmed from the two sides wanting to play different styles, with East Coast intent on charging the ball up with their big forwards and disrupting the home side’s ball at the breakdown, while Wai-Bush were intent on playing an uptempo attacking style.
“At times, they were definitely trying to slow the game down no matter what and probably got away with quite a few things, but at the end of the day, you have to adapt to the ref, and I thought he did a pretty good job.”
Although Taylor stole the show with his stunning solo run, Robinson said it wasn’t a perfect performance from the former Hurricane, who took a couple of wrong options and threw a pass to no one, but in the end, his experience was decisive.
“Andre really showed his experience there at times, and it was great to see the guys feed off that and show some composure at the end and score in the corner, so it was awesome to see.”
Wai-Bush came through the game injury free, with only a few grazed knees and elbows. Nikora Ewe threw a scare into the coaching box when he limped off after 70 minutes, but Robinson confirmed the standout winger’s calf had cramped.
That gives the coaches a full squad to choose from for Saturday’s away trip to Oamaru.
“It’s always nice to get a win in a first-up game. We got a lot of learnings out of the game, and as long as we’re improving every week, I’m pretty stoked, but for us to beat North Otsago or be competitive, we’ll have to be on our game, and you can’t get away with a lot of errors like we did [on Saturday] because they’ll definitely punish us,” Robinson concluded.