Auckland halt Canterbury's NZ dominance
MATCH REPORT & HIGHLIGHTS: Auckland have secured the NPC title with a dramatic 40-33 extra time victory over Canterbury at Eden Park.
After defeats to Canterbury in the 2012 and 2015 deciders, Auckland deserved the spoils, scoring six tries to three in a seesaw battle which hinged on the tremendous impact of its bench players such as hooker Mike Sosene, loose forward Taleni Seu, and wing Caleb Clarke. Had the scores been still tied after extra time, Auckland would still have won by virtue of scoring more tries than its opponent.
The first spell saw a lot of nip and tuck, but Canterbury monopolised the ball and field position. The points did not, however, come freely. Brett Cameron and Mitch Drummond did kick a lot, mostly accurately. The visitors also challenged Auckland on its lineout ball, mauled freely and tackled with its trademark efficiency.
The first try was, in fact, a penalty try, referee Glen Jackson heading between the uprights after deeming Auckland had collapsed a driving maul off a lineout. He sent No 8 Akira Ioane to the sinbin, which proved costly to the home side.
As the rain started to fall, fullback George Bridge ran a sweet angle off a Braydon Ennor short ball to cross for his fifth try of the season.
Auckland’s response was almost immediate and centred on a heads-up play by the skipper TJ Faiane. He tapped a penalty and was off, stepping and surging before offloading to a direct running Tumua Manu for the centre’s seventh try of the season.
The second half saw Eden Park shrouded in near darkness. It was raining and the lights took time to engage. It might have been a metaphor for Auckland’s performance, 7-20 in debit.
But out of the shadows, Canterbury flanker Billy Harmon was yellow carded for a tip tackle on Jordan Trainor. Auckland swung onto attack, Evan Olmstead being held up over the line.
Then the home side was awarded a scrum penalty after a big shunt on that set-piece. An ever-alert Ioane took the quick tap, and powered over for the score. Game on.
Patient Auckland pressure yielded a try to fullback Jordan Trainor after several pick and goes. Ball freed, three passes, try.
Then replacement wing Caleb Clarke swept over off an efficient lefto scrum move. Harry Plummer’s wide-angled conversion drew it level at 26-all. We were heading for a rare grand final extra time period of 10 minutes each way.
Canterbury replacement Tom Sanders scored first for Canterbury in the first period of extra time, spinning over, before Sosene replied to make it 33-all.
The final was sealed when Auckland replacement halfback Leon Fukofuka latched onto a Melani Nanai break. The Rugby Cup was within Auckland’s grasp as Canterbury was going to need to score twice to clinch the victory.
It was not to be. Cue joyous celebrations.
The 20 133 spectators who enjoyed free entry certainly got their added value entertainment, 100 minutes of dramatic finals rugby with the full spectrum of Auckland weather.
New Zealand Rugby President Maurice Trapp would have afforded himself a quiet smile, having coached Auckland to four straight NPCs from 1987-90s, a time when this union could rightly call itself one of the finest provincial juggernauts of all time. The class of 2018 has some way to go, but this is a fair start.
Five of the Canterbury side will not have long to drown their sorrows, as they fly to Tokyo tomorrow to link up with the All Blacks for next weekend’s Japan Test.
Tries: Tumua Manu, Akira Ioane, Jordan Trainor, Caleb Clarke, Mike Sosene, Leon Fukofuka
Cons: Harry Plummer 5
Tries: George Bridge, Tom Sanders; penalty try;
Cons: Brett Cameron 2
Pens: Brett Cameron 4