The Mid Canterbury Hammers will now have to keep their fingers and toes crossed, as well as do their bit if they are going to make it to the Meads Cup semi-finals after a disappointing 40-32 loss to Buller on Saturday.
It was a stereotypical game of two halves, with the Hammers putting 29 points on the board in the first half, unleashing their superb attacking rugby skills that had seen them surge up the table in the past few weeks.
Fullback Maleli Sau was at his slippery best, putting three tries on the board in the half, all coming within 18 minutes of each other.
The first two were within two minutes of each other.
The first, he broke several tackles and slid over the line in the rainy conditions at the Ashburton Showgrounds.
The second came straight from the Buller kick off, with Sau getting put into space, where he sidestepped the last defender back through the Arthurs Pass.
Jarred Percival once again showed his consistency off the tee.
Having started off the game with a penalty, he converted all of Sau’s tries, the third of which came from patient play from the Hammers allowing them to spread the ball over the park, before a sneaky chip over the defence from Percival allowed Sau to dart in.
Two penalties from Buller’s star man James Lash had kept them on the scoreboard, but they still trailed 24-6.
The Hammers’ fourth try of the half came courtesy of lock Angus Lindsay, his second try of the season.
Second-five Nete Caucau was at his rampaging best, breaking several tackles before offloading, from which the ball was spread wide to Lindsay who galloped over in the corner.
The last five minutes of the half saw two vital moments give Buller a sign of hope.
Hammers openside flanker Seta Koroitamana was shown a yellow card for what appeared to be a dangerous hit, while with only a minute left on the clock, Lash caught the Hammers’ defence napping, and instead of kicking for the corner as it appeared he would do, he tapped it quickly and took the easy 10 metre dash to the try line.
This left Buller trailing by 16 at the break, with the scoreboard reading 29-13.
Buller eased their way in to the second half with two penalties courtesy of the boot of Lash, while the Hammers squandered two chances, with Percival missing one, while sub Tom Hanham-Carter put one wide from out in front after Percival was collected late with a big hit that left him dazed on the ground.
Buller then set up an exciting finish, after a Lash grubber kick was spilled by Sau, allowing Iliesa Ravudra in for his first try of the game.
Lash landed a brilliant conversion, bringing the visitors within three.
Just moments after coming on while the conversion was being taken, sub Tyler Blackburn was heading straight back to the sideline for 10 minutes after taking the man in the air from the kick-off.
The Hammers extended their lead slightly thanks to a Jason Kjestrup penalty, but saw it all crashing down around them after Kjestrup’s clearing kick from a deep kick-off was charged down by David Egelstaff, who scored in the corner.
Lash held his nerve with the conversion, putting the visitors one point in front.
There was to be no last-minute magic from the Hammers, with Ravudra crossing for his second, which Lash converted, sending the strong travelling support wild.
“It was a really gutting loss,” co-coach Craig Dunlea said.
“There are a few things we are going to have to address, and now we just have to hope things go our way.”
Dunlea highlighted James Lash as an important figure in Buller’s comeback.
“We had kept him under wraps but from about 30 minutes on, he started to control the game a lot more,” he said.
“We went away from what was working, starting doing things as individuals and made some silly mistakes.”
Two yellow cards in a game is never good for any side, with Koroitamana’s being his third in three games, that now sees him suspended for the next game.
“That is why we took him off when we did as we didn’t want to risk him getting another one and the chance it could be two weeks,” Dunlea said.
“They were both at really crucial times so we have just got to look at that, why they happened, whether it was brain explosions or whatever.”
With a late kickoff against the King Country next week, the Hammers will know what they need to do if they are going to make it in to the Meads Cup.
“We will know by kick-off if we have a chance at making it or whether we will be looking at a home Lochore Cup final,” he said.
In other results around the competition, Wanganui suffered their third loss of the season after going down 15-8 to Horowhenua Kapiti, while South Canterbury recovered from a scare against Wairarapa Bush to win 29-20, having been trailing 12-17 at half time.
The West Coast picked up an important win at home to Thames Valley 24-17, while the East Coast lost yet again, going down 57-14 to North Otago.
Poverty Bay continued their strong end of the season, winning 43-29 against the King Country.
Mid Canterbury 32 (Maleli Sau 3, Angus Lindsay tries; Jarred Percival 3 con, pen; Jason Kjestrup pen)
Buller 40 (James Lash, David Egelstaff, Iliesa Ravudra 2 tries; Lash 4 con, 4 pen). HT: 13-29
– By Jaime Pitt-MacKay http://www.guardianonline.co.nz/
Andrew Stephens (c)