TEAM OF THE WEEK: Shield has a new home
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks at Round Eight of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
In the penultimate round of the NPC there were some extremely important fixtures.
The biggest match of the season arrived on Friday night, where Taranaki challenged, not only for the lead of the Premiership, but also the most important shield in New Zealand sport, the log o' wood.
Counties Manukau, Auckland and Waikato all fought to stay out of the relegation zone, in what is turning into a battle as interesting as the fight for top spot.
In one of North Harbour's most important matches this season, they travelled down to Nelson to face playoff hopefuls Tasman.
But a string of penalties early on ended in the second collapsed maul and a 7-point penalty try.
All the good work of a long attack by Harbour, going through 14 phases, was undone by a stolen line-out, breaks by Tima Fainganuku, Mitch Hunt and Jordan Taufua, and quick hands by Hunt to give Will Jordan an easy run in for a fantastic team try.
The Makos looked very good on offence, making large strides with every carry, picking up a third through Pete Samu.
A ridiculous yellow card to Makos' centre Joass followed when Matt Duffie dived over the top of him as he stood up, in what should not have even been a penalty.
There were several more poor decisions shortly thereafter, including an innocent collision getting penalised, a Tasman player clearly sliding out then getting a decision of an on-field try (luckily over-turned by the TMO) and a nasty high tackle not being carded in what was a very inconsistent night with the whistle.
Eighteen Mako phases five-metres out demonstrated Harbour's top-notch defence, even though Joass was waiting on the sideline with his bin-time up.
Solid tackling by both teams meant the first half ended 21-0 to Tasman.
Duffie sent a cheeky quick throw-in to Tavita Li, who bumped one and offloaded back to Duffie, who stepped Hunt and ran in for Harbour's first.
The Makos withstood wave after wave of Hibiscus' pressure until Tasman formed an attack of their own.
Harbour turned it over and a stunning 70-metre run by Li led to Matt Vaega juggling it and diving over to make it a 7-point deficit.
A very exciting finish ensued, with both teams flinging the ball around, going coast-to-coast, but it was Harbour's ill-discipline that lost them the game, 21-14.
In a ferocious game that clearly meant a lot to both teams, there was feeling in the tackles and some frighteningly good runs.
The lead bounced between Counties Manukau and home-side Manawatu and with Tim Nanai-Williams (deliberate slapdown) and Antonio Kirikiri (collapsing a maul) spending time in the bin, the scores were very close at half time (17-22 to the visitors).
Several smart passes from Manawatu's own goal-line set NewtonTudeu free in acres of space, he offloaded to Lewis Marshall who dropped it back for Otere Black who passes and was hit late, but Curtis Ambrose ran it round under the posts.
For the late hit, TevitaNabura was given a 10 minute rest while the Turbos took the lead.
Counties took back the lead through a try to Nigel Ah Wong, but a high swinging arm meant influential scrumhalf Augustine Pulu got a red card with 6 minutes left.
The Steelers defended well with only 14 men, and Nanai-Williams showed his versatility covering halfback to seal a bonus-point win, 24-29.
One played two in a very important Ranfurly Shield challenge by Taranaki down in Christchurch.
Ten minutes were on the clock and the home team upped the pace scoring 24 points before an intercept try to Seta Tamanivalu got the Bulls on the board.
George Bridge raced away for an early Canterbury bonus-point try before brilliance from Marty McKenzie and Stephen Perofeta opened up the usually tight home defence.
Pita Sowakula powered over after Taranaki's forward pack picked up another steal through Lachlan Boshier and Ricky Riccitelli to bring the match within 10 at half time, with an amazing seven tries already scored.
Out of the sheds and Canterbury struck first.
A nice step and fend on the kick return saw Richie Mo'unga pass to Braydon Ennor, whose speed was too much for the cover defence.
It was great to see Charlie Ngatai return to the game early in the second half and he made an immediate impact, steadying Taranaki's backline and passing into the gaps on attack.
Off a quick line-out, maul and break, Ricky Riccitelli spun over to bring it back to a 10-point gap.
Fantastic interplay between backs and forwards by Taranaki found Tahuriorangi fling a double skip pass to Tamanivalu, who got his offload away between two Canterbury defenders to Lachlan Boshier, who only had 5 metres to go.
The momentum had certainly swung the way of the Bulls and a Marty McKenzie penalty evened the scores with 23 minutes to go.
Two Ngatai offloads put Tamanivalu into a gap and Lachlan Boshier over for his brace.
Taranaki had stolen the lead for the first time in the game through a massive comeback.
Suddenly, Manasa Manaele charged down and caught Mo'unga's chip. Manaele then raced 50 metres to bring up the Bulls 50!
After Perofeta's drop goal put them out of reach, Rob Thompson scored his double, but the consolation try left the score at 43-55.
Taranaki not only won back the Ranfurly Shield for the first time since 2012, but also drew level with Canterbury at the top of the Premiership.
Only Canterbury's impressive points differential kept them above Taranaki.
Bay Of Plenty travelled to Otago in a last-ditch effort to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Both Otago and their tourists looked evenly matched, with strong defence and solid set pieces.
Otago struck first off a nifty inside pass for Fletcher Smith to run on to.
BoP hit back immediately with great team tries to Hugh Blake and Terrence Hepetema.
Otago found good space wide and exposed the Steamers to get a half time advantage through form winger, Jona Nareki, who was denied one by the TMO but not the next.
The home side came back onto the pitch with intensity on offence but with both defences so resolute, all they could do was swap penalties.
A pilfered ball by replacement hooker Sebastian Siataga was kicked long by Mike Delany and exceptionally quick winger Monty Ioane knocked the ball free for the other speedy wing, Joe Webber, to pounce on, giving Bay Of Plenty a 6-point lead with only 15 minutes remaining.
Webber made a strong break up his wing, beating 3 defenders before going to ground. The forwards rumbled it up and Chase Tiatia stepped out of Smith's grab before stretching over to give the Steamers a bonus-point and remove Otago's losing-within-seven-bonus-point.
A try each to replacement Matt Faddes and Luke Campbell left the score at 28-36 and Bay temporarily took second on the Championship ladder.
Northland got ahead early when Dan Pryor trotted over after only 3 minutes.
During a long period of Hawkes' Bay pressure, Sam Nock launched himself over a ruck to slap the ball out of his opposite number's hands and earn himself a 10-minute rest.
Ihaia West quickly grubbered through for wing Cardiff Vaega to touch down and even the scores.
Northland held the ball for the rest of Nock's detention, even picking up a penalty goal, sounding an alarm for the Magpies' supporters.
Off numerous penalties, Dan Pryor flopped over from the back of a powerful maul to collect his double right before the half-time whistle sounded.
At first receiver, hooker Matt Moulds was quickly surrounded, but from a standing-start he fended and took off.
Rene Ranger was in support to collect a perfect inside ball and dive over to extend the lead to 17.
The Magpies had ample opportunities but failed to convert them into points, whereas the Taniwha grabbed one more to move into second on the Championship table, by winning 34-7.
The only game this round which could have no impact was between Wellington (so far ahead they could not be caught) and Southland (so far behind they needn't turn up next week).
Wellington rang the changes on the team-sheet and still won convincingly, showing ferocity and power on defence and confidence and skill on attack.
Even without the cohesion shown in previous matches this season, the Lions scored 9 tries to the Stags 2, to win 12-61.
On a sodden Nelson pitch that reminded one of a northern club track, Tasman welcomed Auckland in a game that could decide a lot for both sides.
Auckland started well with a couple of Jono Hickey penalties and some dominant forward play.
But it wasn't long until the Makos' talented backline came to the party, with a huge skip pass from Mitch Hunt and an offload by James Lowe sending Vernon Fredericks over.
Centre Levi Aumua broke four tackles, before Will Jordan slid just inches out, making it easy for veteran Billy Guyton to sneak over for Tasman's second.
Tasman's forwards started dominating the collisions and Auckland's heads started dropping.
Although Taleni Seu stole a line-out, the bounce alluded Jono Hickey and Fredericks grabbed it and took off.
He bumped off his opposite and then drew in the final defender before passing to Ethan Blackadder who ran in for their third.
Auckland winger Joe Ravouvou was denied right on half time. Tyrell Joass put in a fantastic tackle to dislodge and steal the ball.
Another brilliant pass by Hunt to Lowe, wide out left. Lowe then slipped a quirky no-look pop to Will Jordan who raced by the cover to extend the lead to 20 points and notch up a bonus-point.
After a barrage of drives 5 metres out, Akira Ioane spun it to the excellent Taleni Seu who dived long to the corner to grab Auckland's only try of the match.
A fancy one-two between Jordan and Lowe, left a big gap for Shannon Frizell to go over in the corner.
A final try to Ben Nee Nee meant the score ended at 31-18 to Tasman.
The result meant a guaranteed semi-final for Tasman who moved into third. Auckland stayed in reach of last-placed Waikato, so the final game of the round became highly important.
Waikato and North Harbour traded penalties in a tight forward-oriented battle.
The home side's forwards were having a great day at the set piece and terrorising Harbours' rucks with captain James Tucker and the Jacobsen brothers doing damage.
Waikato's season has been plagued by small cumulative errors, but Harbour's consistency has rocketed them up the ladder until this week.
Handling errors from both teams meant neither could finish with both Tyler Campbell and Moala-Liava'a missing out on tries.
The Mooloos finally scored a 5-pointer, 60 minutes into the contest, through a Harbour mistake, kicked through by Matthew Lansdown.
But a stupid charge to clear off a Harbour player after the whistle saw Sevu Reece spend 10 on the sidelines and the restart was a penalty to the visitors.
Captain James Tucker then got a controversial yellow card for incorrect entry into a maul. So, Waikato were down to 13 for much of the rest of the match.
Matt Duffie went upside down in his dive for the Hibiscus's first try off the back of a scrum.
Each side missed relatively easy penalties and by that time the Mooloos returned to 15 players.
Waikato were clearly the better team on the day, but Harbour got the 50/50 calls and Ben Volavola finally got a penalty goal over to steal the game 11-13.
Score and scorers:
Tasman 21-14 North Harbour
Tries:Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion), Will Jordan, Shannon Frizell
Cons: Billy Guyton 2
Tries:Matt Duffie, Matt Vaega
Cons: Ben Volavola, Bryn Gatland
Manawatu 24-29 Counties Manukau
Try:Michael Alaalatoa, Newton Tudeu, Ambrose Curtis
Cons: Otere Black 3
Pen: Otere Black
Tries:Ronald Raaymakers, Stephen Donald, Orbyn Leger, Nigel Ah Wong
Cons: Stephen Donald 3
Pen: Stephen Donald
Canterbury 43-55 Taranaki
Tries:Rob Thompson 2, Tom Sanders, Tim Bateman, George Bridge, Braydon Ennor
Cons: Richie Mo'unga 5
Pen: Richie Mo'unga
Tries:Seta Tamanivalu, Stephen Perofeta, Pita Sowakula, Ricky Riccitelli, Lachlan Boshier 2, Manasa Mataele
Cons: Marty McKenzie 7
Pen: Marty McKenzie
DG: Stephen Perofeta
Otago 28-36 Bay Of Plenty
Tries:Fletcher Smith, JonaNareki, Matt Faddes
Cons: Fletcher Smith, Josh Ioane
Pens: Fletcher Smith, Josh Ioane 2
Bay Of Plenty:
Tries:Hugh Blake, Terrence Hepetema, Joe Webber, Chase Tiatia, Luke Campbell
Con: Mike Delany
Pens: Mike Delany 3
Northland 34-7 Hawkes' Bay
Tries:Dan Pryor 2, Rene Ranger, Tim Bond
Cons: Peter Breen 2, Dan Hawkins 2
Pens:Peter Breen, Dan Hawkins
Con: Ihaia West
Southland 12-61 Wellington
Tries:Tim Boys, Mike McKee
Tries:Trent Renata, Will Mangos, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Asafo Aumua, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Wes Goosen, Regan Verney, Sitiveni Paongo, Kemara Hauiti-Parapara
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 5, Trent Renata 3
Tasman 31-18 Auckland
Tries:Vernon Fredericks, Billy Guyton, Ethan Blackadder, Will Jordan, Shannon Frizell
Cons:Billy Guyton 3
Tries:Taleni Seu, Ben Nee Nee
Cons: Harry Plummer
Pen: Jono Hickey 2
Waikato 11-13 North Harbour
Pens: Matthew Lansdown 2
Con: Ben Volavola
Pens: Bryn Gatland, Ben Volavola
Team of the Week - Round Eight:
15 - Marty McKenzie (Taranaki):
Such a consistent performer, the older McKenzie brother is often overlooked, but this week he shone bright, kicking brilliantly and joining the line to create chaos in the Canterbury backline. Special mention to Will Jordan (Tasman) for two excellent games in just five days and Matt Duffie (North Harbour).
Bubbling Under: George Bridge (Canterbury)
14 - Declan O'Donnell (Taranaki):
O'Donnell was instrumental in the famous win over Canterbury, making metres where others wouldn't.
Bubbling Under: Newton Tudreu (Manawatu)
13 - SetaTamanivalu (Taranaki):
Slowly returning to his player of the year form of 2015, Tamanivalu bumps off defenders but he has added a tricky distribution skill to his arsenal. Special mention to Rene Ranger (Northland) and Nigel Ah Wong (Counties Manukau).
Bubbling Under: Lewis Marshall (Manawatu)
12 - Rob Thompson (Canterbury):
Thompson has been making waves for a couple of seasons and rightly so. He is a devastating runner and his distribution skills in contact are excellent.
Bubbling Under: Orbyn Leger (Counties Manukau)
11 - Joe Webber (Bay Of Plenty):
The former sevens star made plenty of metres down the tram lines and his following up of a kick on the opposite wing got him a bonus try.
Bubbling Under: James Lowe (Tasman)
10 - Mitch Hunt (Tasman):
A highly contested position saw several fantastic candidates miss out. Hunt was involved heavily in so many of the chances the Makos created in their two matches this round. Special mention to Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki) and Richie Mo'unga (Canterbury).
Bubbling Under: Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington)
9 - Billy Guyton (Tasman):
Two accurate and dangerous performances by Guyton, keeping fringe defences honest while also taking over the goal-kicking duties while Mitch Hunt recovers.
Bubbling Under: Kayne Hammington (Manawatu)
8 - Jordan Taufua (Tasman):
Two fantastic displays from Tasman's go-forward king. Taufua has taken a lot of the workload, showing that he has become a very mature 8th man.
Bubbling Under: Toa Halafihi (Taranaki)
7 - Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki):
An absolute menace at the breakdown, stealing the ball four times, two that directly led to tries in a Player of the Round outing. Special mention to Fotu Lokotui (Counties Manukau), Mitchell Jacobson (Waikato), Dillon Hunt (Otago), Vernon Fredericks (Tasman) and James Tuia (Wellington).
Bubbling Under: Dan Pryor (Northland)
6 - Tom Sanders (Canterbury):
Fantastic ball carrying from the Chiefs' loosie who picked up a try for his efforts and caused Taranaki many headaches on defence.
Bubbling Under: Taleni Seu (Auckland)
5 - Jackson Hemopo (Manawatu):
Strong in the air and on the ground, this workhorse made two steals and put in lots of work on attack.
Bubbling Under: Will Mangos (Wellington)
4 - Chris Middleton (Wellington):
The veteran travelling rugby player started for Wellington with a round-high 26 tackles and he also put in 11 carries in a fantastic display of hard-working locksmanship.
Bubbling Under: Matiaha Martin (Counties Manukau)
3 - Atu Moli (Waikato):
His time on the park coincided with some excellent Waikato scrummaging. On top of that he made serious metres with ball in hand and made all seven of his tackle attempts count.
Bubbling Under: Joe Apikatoa (Wellington)
2 - Asafo Aumua (Wellington):
There were plenty of candidates this week, including Andrew Makalio (Tasman), Ricki Riccitelli (Taranaki) and Liam Polwart (Bay Of Plenty), but none stood out like Aumua, who returned with force against Southland. His try was a standard hooker barging over off a maul, but his run up the wing to assist in Umaga-Jensen's try was something special.
Bubbling Under: Matt Moulds (Northland)
1 - Aiden Ross (Bay Of Plenty):
The big loosehead was on form with ball in hand to go along with his regular hard-work in the tight and excellent scrummaging.
Bubbling Under: Tim Perry (Tasman)
Team of the week - Round Seven: 15 George Bridge (Canterbury), 14 Matt Duffie (North Harbour), 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington), 12 Jack Goodhue (Northland), 11 Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki), 10 Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), 9 Sam Nock (Northland), 8 Akira Ioane (Auckland), 7 Du'Plessis Kirifi (Wellington), 6 Tom Sanders (Canterbury), 5 Will Mangos (Wellington), 4 Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau), 3 Alex Fidow (Wellington), 2 Ash Dixon (Hawkes' Bay), 1 Alex Hodgman (Canterbury).
Team of the week - Round Six: 15 George Bridge (Canterbury), 14 Newton Tudreu (Manawatu), 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington), 12 Teihorangi Walden (Otago), 11 Jone Macilai (Northland), 10 Mike Delany (Bay Of Plenty), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Toa Halafihi (Taranaki), 7 Antonio Kirikiri (Manawatu), 6 Adam Knight (Otago), 5 Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau), 4 Josh Furno (Otago), 3 Alex Fidow (Wellington), 2 Ricky Riccitelli (Taranaki), 1 Solomona Sakalia (Bay Of Plenty).
Team of the week - Round Five: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau), 14 Jordan Hyland (Northland), 13 Tim Bateman (Canterbury), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 James Lowe (Tasman), 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington), 9 Mitchell Drummond (Canterbury), 8 Jerome Kaino (Auckland), 7 Billy Harmon (Canterbury), 6 Taleni Seu (Auckland), 5 James Tucker (Waikato), 4 Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury), 3 Michael Alaalatoa (Manawatu), 2 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Angus Ta'avao (Taranaki).
Team of the week - Round Four: 15 Fletcher Smith (Otago), 14 Jordan Hyland (Northland), 13 Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau), 12 Regan Verney (Wellington), 11 Braydon Ennor (Canterbury), 10 Mitch Hunt (Tasman), 9 Bryn Hall (North Harbour), 8 Toa Halafihi (Taranaki), 7 Du'Plessis Kirifi (Wellington), 6 Jack Ram (Northland), 5 Josh Dickson (Otago), 4 Josh Furno (Otago), 3 Alex Fidow (Wellington), 2 Liam Polwart (Bay Of Plenty), 1 Ross Wright (Northland).
Team of the week - Round Three: 15 Shaun Stephenson (North Harbour), 14 Marshall Suckling (Canterbury), 13 Matt Vaega (North Harbour), 12 Jack Goodhue (Northland), 11 Jona Nareki (Otago), 10 Brett Cameron (Canterbury), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato), 8 Jordan Taufua (Tasman), 7 Mitchell Jacobson (Waikato), 6 Dillon Hunt (Otago), 5 James Tucker (Waikato), 4 Isaia Walker-Leawere (Wellington), 3 Oli Jager (Canterbury), 2 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Ross Wright (Northland).
Team of the week - Round Two: 15 Will Jordan (Tasman), 14 Monty Ioane (Bay of Plenty), 13 Matt Vaega (North Harbour), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 Joe Webber (Bay of Plenty), 10 Richie Mo'unga (Canterbury), 9 Pele Cowley (Waikato), 8 Elliot Dixon (Southland), 7 Connor Collett (North Harbour), 6 Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki), 5 Scott Scrafton (Auckland), 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), 3 Aki Seiuli (Otago), 2 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Loni Uhila (Waikato).
Team of the week - Round One: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder (Manawatu), 14 Declan O'Donnell (Taranaki), 13 Rene Ranger (Northland), 12 Matthew Johnson (Southland), 11 Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki), 10 Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Taranaki), 8 Luke Whitelock (Canterbury), 7 Du'Plessis Kirifi (Wellington), 6 Jordan Manihera (Waikato), 5 Jarrad Hoeata (North Harbour), 4 Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury), 3 Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury), 2 AsafoAumua (Wellington), 1 Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau).
By Richard Neal