Copthorne Wairarapa Bush broke their away hoodoo with arguably their best performance of the season to lock in a home semifinal for the Lochore Cup.
The “green and reds” went into the last round robin clash in Ashburton with a three-win, four-loss record, with three of those defeats on the road, and needing a bonus point victory to be assured of hosting a home semifinal.
Coach Reece Robinson was thrilled with the outcome, saying the win came on the back of probably their best preparation heading into a game. That included a day of activities, such as clay bird shooting and axe-throwing, on a nearby farm as a team-building exercise and to take the players’ minds off the game and have some fun.
“There was some really good energy yesterday [Saturday], and we put a lot of emphasis on how important this week was for us and how great it would be to get a home semi for the Brian Lochore Cup, and the boys really did that,” Robinson said.
“We probably should have won by more, but at the end of the day, a win is a win, and it doesn’t matter by how much, and it’s nice to get that
win and a home semifinal.”
The home side were the first to register points through second-five Tom Reekie after a sustained period of pressure in their first trip into the Wai Bush 22.
Bruising prop Tupou Lea’aemanu celebrated his 25th and blazer game with a try after 19 minutes to level the scores and repeated the dose 13 minutes later, in both instances barging over from close range.
Wai Bush went close to extending their lead on halftime, but a knock on under the posts saw them take a 12–5 lead into the break.
The home side were again the first to score after the restart when centre Jonetani Vasurakuta swooped onto a loose pass and sprinted 50m to dot down under the posts.
Two Andre Taylor penalties gave Wai-Bush an 18–15 lead before two tries in three minutes swung the game well and truly in their favour at 30–15. The first was to busy flanker Inia Katia, who outsprinted the defence to score in the corner after a midfield bust by second-five Tafa Tafa, while hardworking captain Sam Gammie capped a man-of-the-match performance when he crashed over from close range.
Mid Canterbury weren’t done, though and closed the gap to five points with tries to No. 8 Michael Hennings, who charged over from a scrum and to winger Raitube Vasurakuta in the corner.
A third Taylor penalty after 77 minutes took the game out of the home side’s reach, although a Josh Jennings penalty from in front on fulltime salvaged a second bonus point, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to sneak into the semifinals.
Former Hurricane Taylor was all class for the winners, and his influence on the outcome was not lost on Robinson.
“Andre, is Andre right? He’s just got that calm, collective experience, and he can see a lot more than what others do as well,” he said.
“He played very well, and his kicking was outstanding, and the wind wasn’t the greatest, and it was a sideways breeze, but he was able to get some good distance, and his accuracy was really good.”
Gammie was outstanding at lock, even more so far after losing middle-row partner Logan Wakefield to a season-ending ankle injury.
Katia, halfback Isaac Bracewell and Lea’aemanu were others to stand out for Robinson, although he said the whole team put in a solid performance. He was also “pretty stoked” that 43-year-old Tana Isaac finally got to make his Wai Bush debut, playing the last 20 minutes at flanker after injury had curtailed previous appearances.
Wakefield’s loss is a serious blow to the team. The promising lock or loose forward has been one of the form players with his lineout dominance and his presence in general play.
Tom Campbell, BJ Campbell, who started at No. 8 on Saturday, or Matt Perry are options to start the semifinal, and Robinson will assess his options over the next day or two.
The semifinal opponent on Saturday, West Coast, are one of three teams that Wai Bush didn’t meet in the round-robin, and Robinson admits he knows little about their form this season.
“We don’t know much about West Coast, but we’ll do a bit of analysis on them this week and come up with a plan for how we can attack them.
“We’ll look at their strengths and weaknesses, but our main focus will be on us, and if we can do our job properly, I think everything will take care of itself.”
Saturday’s semifinal is Wai Bush’s first since 2019 when they were unlucky to go down 27–25 to North Otago in a Meads Cup semifinal.
Mid Canterbury 28 [Tom Reekie, Jonetani Vasurakuta, Raitube Vasurakuta, Mike Hennings tries; Josh Jennings 2 pens, con] Wairarapa Bush 33 [Tupou Lea’aemanu , Inia Katia, Sam Gammie tries; 3 pens, 2 cons] HT 5-12
Other Heartland Results
Thames Valley 31 East Coast 26; Poverty Bay 31 South Canterbury 41; King Country 33 Buller 28; Whanganui 55 Horowhenua Kapiti 19; West Coast Coast 27 North Otago 12.
South Canterbury 40; Whanganui 32; Thames Valley 31; East Coast 27; North Otago, Wairarapa Bush 22; West Coast 21; Poverty Bay, Mid Canterbury, King Country 16; Buller 15; Horowhenua-Kapiti 11
semifinals – Saturday
North Otago vs Poverty Bay – Oamaru 2pm; Wairarapa Bush vs West Coast – Trust House Memorial Park 2.30pm.