The anticipation is finally over.
The Tasman Titans ensured a memorable representative rugby league debut when they stunned the West Coast Chargers 28-20 at Tahunanui on Saturday.
Not only was it the first match of this year's inaugural South Island series, it was also the Titans' first match together, their five tries to four victory signalling a brave beginning against a province steeped in rugby league history.
There was certainly some evidence of a new team finding their feet when West Coast fullback Hayden Scott crossed for two tries inside the opening 10 minutes, one in the corner and one between the posts, to give the visitors a handy 10-0 lead.
It was to be the only period of any genuine West Coast dominance as Tasman gradually established some footing to match their vaunted opponents in every facet of the game.
Tasman's response was swift, second rower Joe Yalayala earning the distinction of becoming the first player to score a try in the Titans jersey when he charged across in the 14th minute to help reduce the margin to 10-6.
His middle row partner James Vailanu followed him across five minutes later from a superbly executed scrum move to level the scores at 10-all, before tries to nippy West Coast standoff Kris Dumelow and finally to young Tasman wing Pene Webber again had the scores locked up, at 14-all at the break.
Tasman secured their first lead of the contest five minutes after the restart when standoff Hayden Smith finished off a slick break by his halfback and skipper, Eliot Smith, between the posts.
When Tasman's bruising substitute front rower Leialoha Musika smashed through several West Coast defenders on the line to extend the lead to 26-14, the prospect of an upset victory suddenly began to permeate through Tasman's ranks.
With Tasman's big, physical ball runners James Piukula, Yalayala, Vailanu, Musika and an aggressive Phil Asi continuing to batter West Coast's increasingly pressured defence, some of Tasman's momentum was lost in the 26th minute when West Coast defender Marcus Young was decked attempting a tackle. Play was stopped for around 20 minutes and the game eventually switched to an adjoining field as medical staff attended to the fallen Coaster.
A 31st-minute penalty to Hayden Smith enabled Tasman to stretch their lead to 28-14, with time seemingly running out on Coast's chances of a late reprieve. There was still time, though, for fullback Scott to again display his attacking skills, chipping into vacant land behind Tasman's defensive line to regather and complete his hat-trick with around five minutes remaining.
But Tasman had done enough, holding on for a significant victory.
Tasman's teething problems included several frustrating errors, some ineffective first-up tackles and two penalty line kicks that failed to find touch, as powerful running by West Coast's key ball carriers, second rower Lance McEwen and prop Adrian Loe, contributed to the visitors' early momentum. But once into some rhythm, Tasman more than matched the Coasters in their physical approach.
"We did it tough; it was a hard way to get a win," said a relieved but delighted Tasman coach Phil Bergman. "I knew we were probably going to come across errors where they were trying things as a new team, so in that regard ... it was what we expected.
"I would have been happy with a one-point win ... but that's not a bad sort of a win for us. I'm happy with that."
Bergman was pleased with his players' aggression and physical approach as their defensive work eventually began to grow teeth.
"When it comes down to it, that's all you have to do to win those games – you've just got to muscle up and win it, and that's what they did. So hopefully we're not too battered, and we'll look forward to the game next week."
Tasman skipper Eliot Smith, who provided calm leadership and some clever touches on attack, was also delighted with the effort.
"It was pretty epic, eh?" said Smith.
"We knew they were always going to be a tough side, and to get one over them's a pretty big achievement for us – and our first game as well.
"We knew it was going to be a physical game. Our players have got the strength and the size to beat them if they're going to play it physical."
He said the win would instil a lot of self-belief in the players for their remaining four games.
"It's good to get a win in that first game. The boys were all fresh, first game together and not really sure what we were going to be like.
"We'll take a lot of confidence away from that game."
Tasman Titans 28 (Joe Yalayala, James Vailanu, Pene Webber, Hayden Smith, Leialoha Musika tries, Simon Duncan 3 cons, Hayden Smith pen) West Coast Chargers 20 (Hayden Scott 3, Kris Dumelow tries, Adam Richardson 2 cons) Ht 14-14.
- The Nelson Mail