Battle for semi-finals still bubbling
October 4, 2009
Wellington's Alby Mathewson crosses for one of his side's seven tries as they moved into third place © Getty Images
Auckland Bay of Plenty Canterbury Counties Manukau Hawke's Bay Manawatu New Zealand North Harbour Northland Otago Southland Taranaki Tasman Waikato Wellington
The scramble for play-offs spots in the Air New Zealand Cup is reaching boiling point with eight teams in the running separated by just six points after 10 rounds.
With just three rounds of the regular season to go, only defending champions Canterbury, who top the table with 37 points, can be reasonably confident of a place in the semi-finals although they have a tough run home with Hawke's Bay and Southland for their final two matches.
Wellington leapt from eighth to third position in the Air New Zealand Cup standings thanks to an emphatic 43-15 win over Manuwatu on Saturday. Despite missing key names like Rodney So'oailo, Hosea Gear and Piri Weepu, the hosts were too hot for Manuwatu to handle and they crossed the whitewash seven times.
All Black props John Schwalger and Neemia Tialata set the foundation at scrum time, while the line out provided top class ball for the back line who thrived throughout. David Smith opened the scoring early in the first half but Lote Raikabula replied in kind for the visitors.
Alapati Leuia showed strong footwork to put his side back in front before the break, but it was in the second half that Wellington cut loose with full-back Cory Jane to the fore. First Jane set up Alby Mathewson for a try before he scored one himself to put some distance between the sides within ten minutes of the second half.
And Mathewson powered over for his second to seal the crucial bonus point as Manuwatu wilted. Robert Fruean and Daniel Ramsay added further tries and Manuatu had to settle for a well taken counter attack try from Tomasi Cama.
Hawke's Bay showed composure to strike late and beat Bay of Plenty 22-19 in their showdown in Rotorua on Friday. A last minute try to left wing Zac Guildford got them home after their best endeavours had been repeatedly rebuffed by a Bay of Plenty side lacking nothing for courage in defence.
The pre-match favourites methodically wore the home side down after Bay of Plenty snatched a 16-9 lead early in the second half. Rain made handling difficult and that, plus determined Bay of Plenty tackling, created a level playing field before the weight of possession finally tipped the game Hawke's Bay's way.
Tenacious defending denied Hawke's Bay three or four try-scoring opportunities but the pressure they created resulted in a string of penalties which fly-half Mathew Berquist converted into points. It was only in the last minute that Bay of Plenty were found wanting and even then there was little they could do after a delicate cross kick from fullback Israel Dagg sat up invitingly for Guildford to score in the corner.
Berquist squeezed over the wide-angled conversion to finish with 17 points, two fewer than another standout, his Bay of Plenty opposite Mike Delany. Delany accounted for all of his team's points, including a 43rd-minute try when he finished off a midfield bust by industrious No.8 Colin Bourke.
Table topping Canterbury made heavy weather of rolling over bottom-placed Counties-Manukau 28-17 in Pukekohe. The champions lead10-3 at halftime through a converted try by hooker Ti'i Paulo and a penalty from fly-half Stephen Brett with Counties on the board through a 13th-minute drop-goal from scrum-half Samisoni Fisilau. Counties' efforts were aided by a Canterbury side that lacked rhythm and did not looked prepared to played structured rugby, opting instead to move the ball wide at every opportunity.
But their game was fractured by a lack of cohesion among their ball runners and their errors let Counties off the hook despite their missing more than 20 tackles throughout the game. Fullback Colin Slade pushed Canterbury further in front with an early penalty in the second half but Counties struck back with the try of the game. From behind their goalposts, they grabbed possession from a Canterbury breakdown and Mark Selwyn scored at the other end after right wing David Raikuna had prompted the counter-attack.
Slade banged over another penalty to stretch the lead before Sean Maitland punished Counties' woeful tackling for the first of his tries. But Counties were not about to fold. They bounced back into the reckoning with a fine move from a 5m lineout with substitute Alepini Olosoni crashing through a yawning gap in the Canterbury defence. Maitland scored again, his second double in three matches, after a fine break by centre Ryan Crotty whose draw and pass opened a clear path down the tramline for his winger.
Tasman kept their play-off hopes alive by beating Northland 21-16 at Whangarei on Sunday. They earned the result they wanted after a scrappy affair in wet conditions at Okara Park. Tasman were forced to work overtime for their win by a Northland side playing well above their modest 13th ranking in the standings.
The teams went to the interval locked at 13-13 with a try apiece, but Northland were the better of the two at that stage after battling their way into a stiff wind. With a wet ball and slippery underfoot conditions making life difficult for the players, Tasman hit the front in the 45th minute after a 20m driving maul ended with hooker Quentin MacDonald scoring a try.
It was a carbon copy replay of Northland's first-half effort to blindside flanker Roy Griffin which had earned his team a 13-6 advantage. Tasman equalised two minutes before halftime with one of the few attacks from width to be seen in the match when fly-half Kahn Fotuali'i and fullback Blair Cook combined to give wing Afeleki Pelenise some space near the touchline.
Pelenise took his opportunity, bouncing out of a Lachie Munro tackle to score in the corner. Both sides employed their forwards to gain ground in the second spell, with MacDonald's try the only time either breached the opposition defences. After that Tasman captain and centre ghth Andrew Goodman added a short range dropped goal while Munro landed his third penalty for Northland.
Waikato notched their fifth win in six matches when they beat North Harbour 33-22 in Hamilton on Thursday.
Tries to Liam Messam, Tim Mikkelson, Dwayne Sweeney and Henry Speight helped them collect just their second bonus point in 10 matches. Waikato welcomed back All Blacks Brendon Leonard, Stephen Donald and Aled de Malmanche into their starting line-up and stole an early match within two minutes, with Messam finishing off a Sweeney burst.
Harbour took first blood in the second half when fullback and skipper Jake McPhee jinked through a gap to open a clear path for George Pisi to race through and score. But Waikato replied emphatically with two tries, the first to Mikkelson who galloped down the tramline on the right after Sosene Anesi outwitted a scrambling Harbour defence. The second saw Sweeney, easily Harbour's most menacing player with ball in hand, rewarded for a busy night when he collected a beautifully timed cut-out pass from Messam.
But Waikato, eyeing a bonus point, almost paid a heavy price as Harbour counterpunched with two tries of their own. Ken Pisi could not believe his luck when Anesi dropped an inside pass from Sweeney at his feet for him to collect and score. Nafi Tuitavake was next, finishing off a backline riposte through a loose Waikato defensive line. But Donald, who last played in Waikato colours in the fifth round, stepped up in the 75th minute to seal the win. He launched a crossfield kick for substitute Speight to collect the loose ball and score after a wicked bounce left Harbour wing Rudi Wulf stranded.
Southland's Eden Park woes continued on Saturday after they yet again crashed to defeat at the hands of Auckland. The visitors hadn't won at the famous venue since 1939 and despite showing good form this season they couldn't overcome the hoodoo and slipped to fourth in the table.
Their strong form has been based on efficient and effective game plan but their performance on Saturday was riddled with errors and indiscipline that led to out-half Ash Moeke's four first half penalties that saw the hosts lead 12-6. But blindside flanker John Hardy crashed over for Southland before Taiela Moa restored Auckland's advantage before the break.
Two superb individual tries lit up the second half and they both came for Auckland with Moa took the ball from the base of a ruck and stunned the Southland defence with a 40 metre run in. And if the home fans enjoyed that one, they certainly relished what followed when substitute Perer Saili took the ball from just outside his own '22 and ran the length to score.
Taranaki gave their slim play-off chances a timely boost with a resounding 38-10 victory over Otago at New Plymouth Bay on Saturday. The defeat rules out any chance Otago maintained of reaching the final four, but after a week of controversy this was Taranaki's night.
The third quarter proved crucial as Taranaki struck three times to pull away from their opponents. Despite the difficult week which saw five players stood down, the hosts were well organised and disciplined despite some problems at lineout time.
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