Both King Country and Thames Valley's poor Heartland Championship campaigns aptly finished on a losing note on Saturday.
King Country went close to upsetting defending champions Wanganui but went down 22-19 in Te Kuiti, while Thames Valley were soundly beaten 28-7 by North Otago in Oamaru.
King Country's bonus point for losing within seven meant they avoided the wooden spoon, finishing on the same points as Horowhenua-Kapiti, but having beaten them during the season - their only win from eight games.
Thames Valley finished third to last on the ladder after notching just two victories.
With Wanganui not managing a four-try bonus point over the Rams it meant they finished second, and will host third-placed Wairarapa Bush in the Meads Cup semifinals, while top-ranked East Coast will entertain North Otago, who edge out Buller on the who-beat-who basis.
South Canterbury's two-point docking for fielding an ineligible player earlier in the season ultimately cost them a place in the Meads Cup and they will instead host Mid-Canterbury in a Lochore Cup semifinal, with Buller at home to Poverty Bay.
For King Country, it was another underwhelming season and mirrored last year's effort of one win from eight and second-to-last place.
Coach Kurt McQuilkin said an off-the-ball incident near halftime was a turning point, which saw Wanganui kick three points after the Rams had a penalty reversed.
"In the end it was to be all that was in the match really, the three points," McQuilkin said.
The hosts still went to halftime ahead 12-8, had the wind in the second half and led late in the piece, though missed a couple of penalties in the dying stages that could have tied it up.
"I guess that's the guts of our season, close, but no cigar," said McQuilkin, who was in his first year in charge. "As a season I think we flattered to deceive a bit."
He felt the players struggled to make the step up from club rugby to rep rugby, where they were faced with more pressure.
"In club rugby they can go out and make five or six mistakes in a half and still win a game by 40 or 50 points. If you do that in rep rugby you get beaten. And that's the cold hard facts, I'm afraid. You just can't afford to have lapses in concentration or make vital turnovers at vital times."
McQuilkin said it was now up to him to upskill the players and he had a good gauge on what players were at his disposal and where the union could possibly recruit to shore up some areas.
Meanwhile, Thames Valley coach Roger Wilton was left lamenting a season which started promisingly but ended up turning sour.
After progressing well in recent years it was a step backwards this year for the Swamp Foxes.
"Obviously, it's disappointing," said Wilton, who was coach for a third time. "We knew from the get-go we were a fairly young and inexperienced side . . . but certainly envisaged being a little bit further up the ladder than third to bottom."
Wilton said the round three loss to South Canterbury, where his side were up 34-3 in the second half, was something they never really got over.
"Confidence-wise I don't know if we ever came back from that, then to know that they cheated [for fielding the ineligible player] makes it worse."
Wilton said about eight players will be heading to other provinces or overseas but he hoped those who did come back would learn from this year.
"A lot of it's probably just the experience of actually being in the Heartland campaign, and it's not that easy, it's quite difficult, in terms of juggling work and trainings, and it does wear you down a little bit. So some of the young guys probably just struggled with that as the season went on."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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