It turns out Waikato rugby has some good talent depth after all. It just needed exposure.
Last Wednesday night's stunning Ranfurly Shield victory over Taranaki in New Plymouth might have made Waikato's season, which until then had battled in fits and starts to a three-win, four-loss record.
But Saturday's 32-28 comeback victory against an in-form Counties Manukau team in Pukekohe not only put them clear of relegation but could well have laid some foundations for the province's future.
Many saw the decision of coaches Chris Gibbes and Scott McLeod to make 16 changes to their match 22 for the penultimate ITM Cup premiership round-robin fixture as almost a concession of the game in order to get their strongest lineup back on the field for next weekend's final match and first Ranfurly Shield defence against Hawke's Bay.
Gibbes, however, insisted they had no choice and they were fielding their fittest combination, such had been the physical toll on their first-choice players in New Plymouth, particularly among the forward pack.
They kept just five starters from Wednesday - Trent Renata, Declan O'Donnell, Save Tokula, Alex Bradley and Sam Kilgour - in the XV and put a sixth - Sam Christie - on the bench.
The other 16 spots went to the fit players left in the squad plus seven or eight from the Waikato development squad.
The toll it took on the development side was reflected on that team ending their season on the wrong end of a 59-14 trouncing from the unbeaten Counties Manukau B team in Saturday's curtain-raiser at ECOLight Stadium.
But those borrowed players really stepped up and after overcoming some combination problems in blustery and, at times, wet conditions they helped Waikato to first fight back to take a 10-8 halftime lead and then recover from a three-try, 17-point blast by the Steelers in the first 16 minutes of the second half.
That blast included a try double to new Chiefs midfield signing Bundee Aki that gave the home side a bonus point and a commanding 25-10 lead.
Waikato's green forward pack worked very hard, led by the likes of Bradley, Rory Grice, locks Anthony Wise and Sam Kilgour and hooker Vance Elliott.
The home side were their own worst enemies at times and made a host of handling errors that often ruined their momentum and a couple of times cost them chances to score.
But at the same time three of Counties' four tries fell into the fortuitous category, coming either from a Waikato handling error or a fortunate knock down or bounce of the ball, their rapid backs then taking full advantage to race away.
When Waikato adjusted their wide-passing game to the conditions and hung on to the ball better than their opposites they put themselves clearly in the hunt, while their set-piece work was pretty good despite the presence of a bunch of rookies in their pack.
Add to that some excellent defensive work that followed on from that of Wednesday night and in the end the championship division-leading Steelers were overcome.
Waikato centre Tokula said the 50-50 situations and bounce of the ball had just not gone Waikato's way in the first spell, despite them managing to lead 10-8 at the changeover thanks to teenage wing Joe Webber scoring their first try right on halftime after great lead-up work from Tokula and speedy prop Ted Tauroa.
“It was very windy and we just couldn't get the long pass going.
"It was blowing all sorts of directions, swirling, so we changed our game plan and decided to just make one pass and carry hard to shorten up the [defence],” Tokula said.
It had been incumbent on the few experienced players on the field for Waikato to keep talking to the newcomers and keep telling them where to go on the field. “But they did a real good job for us today.
"It just shows that around the Waikato area there is so much talent and today so many guys just put their hand up and showed they really want to play," he said.
Gibbes was full of praise for his inexperienced outfit that came through in the end at Pukekohe.
“It was very pleasing that the boys played for 80 minutes,” he said.
“It wasn't great, a lot of it, a fair bit of that stuff was patchy and the wind played a factor in the game, but I was really proud that the boys fronted and played for 80 minutes.”
The fact that one captain's run the day before the game had been all the coaches and players had to put new combinations together made the win even more special. “For them to pick up a win like that - sure it wasn't always the best, but they hung in there.
“We knew at halftime we were right in this and so we just came out after the break, took a bit of pressure and then just kept playing,” he said.
Whether it was a case of new belief seeping into the squad on the back of the Ranfurly Shield victory is uncertain.
“But the key thing is that what we knew was that we needed to front, we needed to come here and play well, or else they would touch us up.
“We just didn't want that to happen.
"We're very proud of the jersey.
"The new guys coming in just did not want to let us down,” coach Gibbes added.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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