Just three points in it. That was the difference between the Steamers making the Mitre 10 Cup Championship division play-offs and their season coming to an abrupt halt with last Saturday’s Tauranga Domain victory over Northland.
Turning one of the six consecutive losses through their mid-season slump into a win would have been enough to move them above Northland into fourth place, and a semi-final spot.
But for head coach Clayton McMillan, it’s not about how close they came.
“No, not at all,” he says. “Despite our injuries we had plenty of opportunity to accumulate points and we didn’t, so we didn’t deserve to be there.
“When we reflect on the season, despite us not being able to consistently put out anything close to our top team, there were a number of games that were well within our grasp and we just failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented to us. We’re suffering the consequences of that now.”
Narrow losses, to Hawkes Bay by one point and Manawatu by two, hurt badly, but Clayton singles out their 45-34 loss to Otago as the real killer.
“I think we played some of our best rugby of the season against Otago,” he says, “and it was all undone by three intercept tries. That’s been the story of our season.”
He says they were on top of their game against Canterbury in the sunshine at Tauranga Domain too - at least for the first 60 minutes.
“I was really impressed with the way we played against Canterbury, and we probably deserved more than we got out of it.
“Had we done that, we may be having a completely different discussion right now. The balance between success and failure is a very thin line at this level and, unfortunately, we’re on the negative side.”
That very thin line makes the Mitre 10 Cup a hard competition in which to maintain momentum from season to season. Clayton identifies three key ingredients.
“Having consistency in your squad, having your fair chunk of Super Rugby experience and being able to put the same team out on the paddock for the majority of the season helps.
“And if you’re a little askew in any of those three things, it certainly puts pressure on.”
Hard work has never been in short supply for the team, but their ability to turn good positions into points too often was. In only three of their 10 matches did they pick up bonus points for four or more tries, compared to seven for Championship division top dogs Waikato.
“From an attacking perspective, we simply haven’t scored enough tries,” says Clayton. “That’s largely come about by some basic fundamental errors that have prevented us from getting the continuity that is going to lead to tries.
“But also, we probably need to have a look at the profile of some of our selections. We’ve been pretty open in our group about not being a team blessed with a whole lot of X-factor, and that’s meant that we’ve had to have a fairly narrow sort of game plan.
“You would have seen us recently doing a lot of mauling and driving, and returning almost to a traditional sort of 10-man game, because that’s where our strengths lie at the moment. That actually served us pretty well in the last couple of weeks.
“But if you look to last year – and I don’t want to disrespect the guys we’ve got in the team this year because they’ve all tried bloody hard and given everything they’ve got – but we haven’t had the Joe Webbers and Monty Ioanes, those guys that singlehandedly created so many opportunities for us last year that contributed to the success that we enjoyed.”
In fact, trying too hard may actually have been part of the problem at times, Clayton believes. The hat-trick of intercept tries against Otago is a prime example, he says.
“The boys are so desperate to want to play well, so desperate to win games, that a forced pass when a carry would probably be a better option leads to things like intercept tries.
“It’s a frustration for everybody because it’s probably come as a consequence of trying too hard, not a lack of trying.”
Next season will be a real period of transition, Clayton says.
“There’s obviously some young talent coming through our ranks that, if they continue to work hard, will feature next year. We also have some players that have been great stalwarts who’ve played their last game for the Bay.”
At the forefront of his mind in the second category are two players who had their seasons cruelly cut short by injury - Tanerau Latimer and Mike Delany - whose polish in the critical first five-eight position may have made a big difference to the outcome of the season.
“Mike’s been an integral part of the side over the last couple of years and we certainly missed him. But we missed a whole heap of guys to be perfectly fair, and it’s a season of could-have-beens.
“But we’re now at the end and we’re not where we want to be, so there’s just disappointment that we didn’t reach our potential.”