BY PETER JONES [Marlborough App]
The Tasman Mako were given a harsh reminder of what lies in store during their Mitre 10 Cup campaign when they went down 22-19 to a Wellington Lions XV at Renwick today.
Playing their final pre-season game on a heavy track, both sides endeavored to move the ball wide but found it hard to make headway, resolute defense and handling errors combining to limit scoring opportunities.
The home side opened the scoring, winger Jamie Spowart crossing in the left corner after five minutes, an opportunity created by some clever interplay between backs and forwards.
However, that was as good as it got for the Mako in the first 40. The early loss of midfielder Nick Foxley meant a reshuffle in the backs, with Fetuli Paea shifting to centre and Tomas Aoake coming onto the wing.
Mako prop Tyrel Lomax carries strongly. Photo Shuttersport.
Wellington’s first try came through a swift counterattack, left winger Losi Filipo being set free after the home side had spilled the ball. The Lions’ flier was too quick for the cover defence, as was his team mate Tuitama Malo five minutes later when first five TJ Va’a created a gap 25m out.
Five minutes later the visitors bagged their third, impressive hooker James O’Reilly ranging out wide to take an in-pass, then step inside the final defender.
Ahead 17-7 at the break, the Lions continued to apply pressure early in the second stanza but were unable to add to their tally and nearly paid for it.
The introduction of both side’s bench players saw a momentum swing, Tasman lifting their intensity at the breakdown and with ball in hand to claw their way back.
Spowart’s second try midway through the half sparked the revival, then replacement winger Timoci Tavatavanawai was given a clear run to the line to level the scores soon after.
Willie Havili’s conversion pushed Tasman ahead 19-17 but as they attempted to close the deal, their set piece let them down. Inaccuracy cost them several attacking lineout opportunities then, from a scrum on halfway, Wellington struck. Although Tasman shunted the Lions eight back, the visitors exploited space on the blind side with flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi diving over in the corner to bag the match-winner.
Mako head coach Leon MacDonald said, despite their loss, his side would take positives out of the game. "We did some things really well and responded after a pretty average first half to play some pretty good rugby in the second half.
"We managed to apply some pressure but it was just the little things in our game that weren’t quite on today. We were just a bit muddled at times. There were also a lot of combination changes which didn’t help.
"Their line speed also put our skills and structures under pressure today, which was probably a good thing given what is to come.”
With Canterbury arriving in Blenheim for a repeat of the 2017 grand final on Friday, MacDonald and his fellow coaches have limited time in which to mould a side capable of upsetting the reigning champions.
"We will have a different-looking XV to play Canterbury, but it’s certainly not much time to build combinations and game understanding.
"The challenge isn’t going to be about bouncing back from this game - it’s the integration of the Highlanders, Crusaders and Chiefs who are coming back into the group over the next five or six days before we play again. We have a busy week ahead, that’s for sure.”
MacDonald was excited by the potential of the squad which played the pre-season phase.
"Some of the younger guys did a really good job and have put their hands up [for selection]. There’s really positive signs in the future for this group.
"We have built some really good depth out of the pre-season window. A lot of guys have just kept growing and growing every week … Isaiah Miller has been very good, Willie Havili has a huge amount of potential, Jack Grooby has made a good fist of it for a young guy. There’s lots of good signs.”
Wellington Lions 22 (Losi Filipo, Tuitama Malo, James O’Reilly, Du’Plessis Kirifi tries, TJ Va’a con) Tasman Mako 19 (Jamie Spowart 2, Timoci Tavatavanawai tries, Tim O’Malley, Willie Havili cons). HT: 17-12 Wellington.