Waikato is New Zealand's champions
NPC MATCH REPORT: Two opportunist tries to Bailyn Sullivan sealed a golden homecoming for Waikato when they beat Tasman 23-20 in a cliffhanger New Zealand National Provincial Championship Premiership Final in Hamilton on Saturday.
In early October, Waikato was forced to make a hasty exit from their home city when a COVID-19 outbreak plunged Hamilton into a lockdown which was only lifted this week.
While on the road for seven weeks, Waikato managed to finish second in the regular season before beating Canterbury in the semi-finals to set up the showdown with Tasman, the 2019 and 2020 champions.
In an evenly matched contest, it was two moments of brilliance by Sullivan, cashing in on Tasman errors, that determined the outcome.
Waikato struck first with an early D’Angelo Leuila penalty before the seasoned Tasman unit produced the opening try when scrum-half Louie Chapman sent Regan Ware over in the corner.
When Tasman was again attacking the line a few minutes later, Sullivan snapped up a loose pass and ran 70 metres to score.
Two penalties by Tasman fly-half Mitch Hunt and a second by Leuila had the score locked at 13-13 early in the second half when Tasman, again on attack, saw another pass go astray and again Sullivan snapped it up for a runaway try.
A try to Quinten Strange levelled the score at 20-20 with 15 minutes to play, only for replacement Waikato fly-half Fletcher Smith to break the deadlock in the 71st minute with a handy penalty.
Tries: Sullivan 2
Cons: Leuila 2
Pens: Leuila 2, Smith
Tries: Ware, Strange
Cons: Hunt 2
Pens: Hunt 2
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* Meanwhile Taranaki had a perfect season en route to claiming the NPC Championship (second division) title with a 32-19 victory over Otago in Inglewood.
Heading into the Final with nine wins from as many matches in a campaign severely disrupted by COVID-19, Taranaki ran in four tries to Otago’s three in a performance that underlined the home side’s credentials.
In doing so, the Bulls become the first team to finish an NPC season without defeat since Tasman achieved the same feat two years ago.
However, with the three Auckland-based provinces – Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau – withdrawn from the competition after two rounds due to the city’s ongoing lockdown, Taranaki won’t be promoted to the NPC Premiership next season.
That ruling from New Zealand Rugby drew the ire of Taranaki head coach Neil Barnes earlier this year, but he will have little to complain about from this match as his team’s superb goalline defence and lethal backline play put Otago guided them to their first title since 2014.
Tries: Proffit, Waite, Wooliams, Naholo
Cons: Perofeta 3
Pens: Perofeta 2
Tries: Hill, Koroi, Ioane
Cons: Ioane 2
Sources: AFP & RugbyPass