South Canterbury have plenty of work to do if they hope to hold the Meads Cup aloft after a fumbling attack and a fragile defence cost them dearly against a bullish Buller side, going down 43-32 on Saturday.
South Canterbury also missed the chance to go to the top of the Heartland competition table but fortunately other results went their way.
They share third place on 16 points with the side that beat them and East Coast.
Whanganui suffered their first loss of the season, beaten 25-17 by East Coast, to allow Wairarapa Bush to got to the top on 18 points after beating Mid Canterbury 31-6.
North Otago's narrow 24-23 win over Poverty Bay have them sixth, just a point adrift of South Canterbury, showing how tight this year's competition is.
To be fair, Buller are not a bad side and certainly made the most of their opportunities at Alpine Energy Stadium, although some came gift-wrapped.
Buller also flourished off their host's poor defence to lead 27-11 at halftime.
South Canterbury closed the gap to 10 points with 10 minutes left to give some hope, but again made too many simple mistakes.
The only real bright spot for South Canterbury was they did manage to grab a four-try bonus point, meaning they have scored 16 tries in the last three games.
Their defence was atrocious at times and their handling, often not under any real pressure, cost several good try-scoring opportunities and also put them under pressure.
Some wayward tactical kicking and poor chasing didn't help.
South Canterbury lost key back Fa'aitu Tuamoheloa with a knee injury before the game so the backline lacked punch, while Kali Latu was also out with an ankle injury.
With a couple of key players out, South Canterbury looked vulnerable, and coaches Chester Scott and Simon Scott may have to be a little less popular in the changing shed and field their top 15 each week.
Last year's New Zealand Heartland XV rep Jared Trevathan may only just be back from Sydney but he should have started rather than being sat on the bench for 50 minutes. He would have helped shore up the wobbly defence.
Poor performers also need to be substituted earlier if the game plan is not working.
Buller will be happy with their trip across the Southern Alps, grabbing a four-try bonus point including a couple of crackers from long range.
One was when South Canterbury wing Aporosa Tabulawaki failed to grab his man after chasing a kick and Buller made three passes, went 75m through 14 others, and the width of the field, to score.
Buller wing William Saukuru also scored a beautiful individual try when he grabbed an aimless South Canterbury clearance in his own half, chipped over the lazy line of defenders coming towards him, regathered the ball and twirled in another direction and outsprinted the defence to score.
The booming boot of fullback Marty Banks collected 20 precious points, including a penalty from five metres inside his own half.
Buller had several standouts with captain and No 8 Bevan Te Tai impressing with several strong runs.
In the backs Saukuru impressed with a busy game and two tries while second five Pene Nabainivalu was a handful and also got across the line.
First five Phil Gibson used the wind cleverly in the first half to keep South Canterbury back.
South Canterbury's best were halfback Sekope Maea, who tried to spark his side with some good runs, while fullback Liam Evans again ran well and attempted to ignite the team from the back.
No 8 Joeli Kotobalavu was the best in the pack while Sam Vea came on in the second half and made some strong runs and scored a try, but his hands also let him down with the line begging, summing up South Canterbury's day.
On the positive side South Canterbury's set plays were very good.
Wing Nate Robinson, replacement hooker Johnny Andrews and centre Steve Burt were South Canterbury's other tryscorers.
Scott admitted his side made too many basic individual errors and the tackling wasn't very good, but he was confident they could bounce back.
"Some of the players weren't even under pressure which is disappointing but Buller took their chances.
"I thought we were still in at halftime but again we made mistakes and gave them the ball.
"The good thing about this group is we can bounce back," Scott said.
South Canterbury face Poverty Bay in Ruatoria on Saturday.
South Canterbury 32 (Nate Robinson, Johnny Andrews, Steve Burt, Sam Vea try, Liam Edwards 2 pen, 3 con) Buller 45 (Bevan Te Tai, Iliasa Namua, Pene Nabainivalu, William Saukuru 2 try. Marty Banks 4, con 4 pen).
- The Timaru Herald