This year's Heartland Championship season is having a strong sense of deja vu for both Thames Valley and King Country.
The competition, in its second year of a revised format, will again see Thames Valley battle for a spot in the Lochore Cup semifinals, while King Country is destined for another bottom-four finish.
The Rams' only success to date this year was against Horowhenua-Kapiti - the only side they beat last year - and they are now bottom of the table after going down to Wairarapa Bush in Taupo on Saturday.
The Bush are tied for top spot on the ladder with Wanganui after outclassing the hosts 25-15 at Owen Delany Park.
The Rams face a giant battle to avoid the wooden spoon, as they come up against Wanganui in their last game, after facing last year's beaten finalists East Coast this weekend.
East Coast were impressive on Saturday as they dealt to Thames Valley 53-38 at the Paeroa Domain.
In a frantic contest, both sides were keen to throw the ball around in the lovely conditions, and that resulted in 14 tries - the visitors winning the battle of the five-pointers 8-6.
The Swamp Foxes' bonus point has left them clinging to eighth spot on the ladder.
They took a 21-10 lead in the first half but weren't able to match East Coast's onslaught.
The visitors opened the scoring in just the second minute through openside flanker Brent Ingram, and thanks to fullback John Semple's conversion and a penalty, they quickly hit double figures.
But Thames Valley responded well, as they pounced on two poor kicks from first five-eighth Rua Tipoki which went down the middle of the park.
Fullback Lance Easton did well in setting up the two tries, combining with winger Caleb Brown to put second five-eighth David Harrison away, then producing a nice run to give to Brown for a great finish in the right corner.
The hosts managed to extend their lead through No 8 and captain Jackson Achilles who burst off the back of a scrum, but the Swamp Foxes' 11-point buffer didn't last long, with East Coast halfback Charlie Harrison finishing a move from halfway which featured some good support play.
Just a few minutes later the visitors snatched the lead back when Semple easily broke the defence, and his team went to halftime up 22-21.
Thames Valley scored early in the second spell through centre Jason Laurich after the ball was spun wide following a brilliant barge off a lineout from lock Petelo Sili.
But East Coast responded quickly with back-to-back tries from prop Ziggy Fisiihoi and second five-eighth Marty Lloyd, as they stretched out to 34-26.
A Tipoki short dropout to himself inspired their next try which had winger TK Moeke sprinting to the corner, and soon after his fellow winger Whaimotu Craft-Chemis was on hand for a simple finish.
The Swamp Foxes harboured hopes of a second bonus point for narrowing the margin to seven when blindside flanker Blake Hill scored a fabulous 60-metre try, in which he was gallantly chased by big Fisiihoi.
But from a quick lineout Craft-Chemis went over to bring up the half century before reserve midfielder Joe Murray crossed for a consolation try for the hosts.
While thwarted by the defeat, Thames Valley coach Roger Wilton admitted his team had come up against a “great side”.
“It's certainly not the end of the world,” he said. “East Coast will beat a few teams, they'll be right there come crunch time.”
Wilton felt East Coast's lineout was probably the best in the competition and said despite his team getting parity at scrum time and phase play, the tackling ended up taking its toll, in a game where his team were happy to take on the opposition at the running game.
“They were blowing, we were trying to play a pretty fast-paced game against them and unfortunately the referee [Grant Stuart] wanted to slow down every lineout and have a meeting every scrum, I don't know what that's about.”
Wilton said his team's defence out wide needed some sharpening and they needed to be able to win the contact area without committing too many numbers.
AT A GLANCE
East Coast 53 (Brent Ingram, Charlie Harrison, John Semple, Ziggy Fisiihoi, Marty Lloyd, TK Moeke, Whaimotu Craft-Chemis 2 tries; Semple 5 con, pen) Thames Valley 38 (David Harrison, Caleb Brown, Jackson Achilles, Jason Laurich, Blake Hill, Joe Murray tries; Harrison 3 con, Brook Tremayne con)
Wairarapa Bush 25 (Inia Katia, Nick Olson, Tom Fleming tries; Glen Walters 2 con, 2 pen) King Country 15 (Simeli Koniferedi, Dean Church tries; Sean Cressy con, pen)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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