Team of the Week: The return of the NPC
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks back on the return of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship, with repeats of the two 2016 finals.
North Harbour took on Otago in a game of three halves, Otago's flyhalf, North Harbour's flyhalf and Otago's replacement scrumhalf. The usually pitch perfect Fletcher Smith, of Otago, was off-key in a performance that got him replaced early after scoring exactly nothing.
Bryn Gatland was the polar opposite for Harbour, kicking everything and making several telling breaks that led to North Harbour's only try. Replacement Jonathan Ruru swung the game back towards Otago, with a try, a disallowed try and an assist for wing Mitchell Scott to go over in the corner.
It wasn't enough, however, and the 2016 Championship final played out again with North Harbour winning 19-17.
The second 2016 final repeat was vastly different from its predecessor.
Canterbury travelled to Nelson to take on their "little brothers" from the Crusaders in what was one of the only dry games of the weekend. The Canterbury forwards demolished Tasman and, although the home team had a few chances, they were unable to finish anything, falling to a 0-39 defeat.
Southland came out strongly and took a 10-point lead going into half-time before Hawkes' Bay decided to fight back. A try apiece for under 20s stars Tiann Falcon and Marino Mikaele Tu'u and nine points from the boot of Blues' flyhalf Ihaia West put an end to the match at 24-16.
In the second Saturday match, after scoring six tries, Taranaki went to sleep thinking they had put Waikato away. A spirited fightback from the Mooloos, including a hat-trick for Jordan Manihera, saw the visitors fall just five short.
On paper, the Bulls should have thrashed Waikato, with fringe All Blacks Charlie Ngatai and Seta Tamanivalu scoring excellent tries and Super Rugby regulars Stephen Perofeta and Marty McKenzie picking up points to make it 34-29.
The final game of the day promised to be a classic derby between Counties Manukau and Auckland.
The neighbours have two of the best backlines in the competition, but unfortunately, the torrential rain made it hard for either team to unleash their attacking threats. With five minutes remaining, and just a single point behind, Counties' flyhalf Baden Kerr put himself in a position to be the hero with a monster 49-metre Pen.
However, two minutes later, thinking time was up, he kicked the ball straight into the stands and was about to celebrate when the ref told him the stadium clock was incorrect. Luckily for Kerr, the Steelers managed to hold up Akira Ioane after a spirited final attack from Auckland, to win 16-14.
The oldest man in world rugby, Mike Delany, returned to action for Bay of Plenty and the 54-year-old made a big contribution. The Steamers set piece was far superior and Bay of Plenty took an early lead with Tom Franklin driving over and Monty Ioane stepping, fending and racing away for an amazing solo try.
Northland's substitutions made a significant impact, scoring half their points and the Taniwhas outstanding breakdown work kept the Steamers frustrated all the way to the final whistle, winning 28-23.
The last match of the weekend was an all-Hurricanes treat, with Wellington taking on their northern neighbours, Manawatu.
It was non-stop running with discarded All Blacks Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea, among others, putting on a show. But it was Wellington's forwards that were the difference in the end, namely under 20s star hooker Asafo Aumua, captain Brad Shields and debutante open side flank Du'Plessis Kirifi.
All the scores and scorers:
North Harbour 19-17 Otago
Try: Shaun Stephenson
Con: Bryn Gatland
Pens: Bryn Gatland 4
Tries: Jonathan Ruru, Mitchell Scott
Cons: Josh Ioane 2
Pen: Josh Ioane
Tasman 0-39 Canterbury
Tries: George Bridge, Dominic Bird, Luke Whitelock, Rob Thompson, Mitchell Dunshea
Cons: Richie Mo'unga 3, Brett Cameron
Pens: Richie Mo'unga 2
Hawkes Bay 24-16 Southland
Tries: To'o Vaega, Tiann Falcon, Marino Mikaele Tu'u
Cons: Ihaia West 3
Pen: Ihaia West
Try: Matthew Johnson
Con: Scott Eade
Pens: Scott Eade 3
Taranaki 34-29 Waikato
Tries: Leighton Price, Charlie Ngatai, Stephen Perofeta, Sean Wainui, Seta Tamanivalu, Beaudein Waaka
Cons: Marty McKenzie 2
Tries: Mitchell Jacobson, Jordan Manihera 3,
Cons: Dwayne Sweeney 3
Pen: Dwayne Sweeney
Counties Manukau 16-14 Auckland
Try: Fotu Lokotui
Con: Baden Kerr
Pens: Baden Kerr 3
Tries: Jono Hickey, Malakai Fekitoa
Cons: Jono Hickey 2
Northland 28-23 Bay Of Plenty
Tries: Howard Sililoto, Jack Ram, Matt Wright, Jone Macilai
Cons: Dan Hawkins 2, Peter Breen 2
Bay Of Plenty:
Tries: Thomas Franklin, Monty Ioane
Cons: Mike Delany 2
Pens: Mike Delany 3
Manawatu 29-41 Wellington
Tries: Willy Ambaka, Curtis Reid, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jackson Hemopo, Jade Te Rure
Cons: Otere Black 2
Tries: Sheridan Rangihuna, Alex Fidow, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Trent Renata, Julian Savea, Malo Tuitama
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 4
Pen: Daniel Kirkpatrick
Team of the Week - Round One:
15 - Nehe Milner-Skudder (Manawatu)
There were so many worthy candidates for this position, but the Skud Missile takes it due to his superior defence. The mini fullback was involved in so much that went right for his team. Special mention to James Lowe (Tasman), Vilimoni Koroi (Otago) and Chase Tiatia (Bay of Plenty).
Bubbling under: Zac Guildford (Waikato)
14 - Declan O'Donnell (Taranaki)
Shut up one of the most dangerous attackers in the competition and then sang a few nifty tunes of his own.
Bubbling under: Ryan Tongia (Southland)
13 - Rene Ranger (Northland)
The dreaded All Black showed he still had the ability to break backlines and spirits as he led Northland to a moral-building win over Bay of Plenty. Special mention to Malakai Fekitoa (Auckland).
Bubbling under: Tim Bateman (Canterbury)
12 - Matthew Johnson (Southland)
The former Waikato and Auckland U20 player seems to have found a home down south. He beat the most defenders this weekend and caused havoc with the Magpies' defence.
Bubbling under: Charlie Ngatai (Taranaki)
11 - Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki)
Perfect on defence and devastating on attack. The errors that were part-and-parcel of the big Crusaders' wings' game have mysteriously disappeared.
Bubbling under: Tevita Li (North Harbour)
10 - Bryn Gatland (North Harbour)
It took a strong general to guide his side to a 19-0 lead and it's no surprise that once he went off, not only did Harbour not score again, but their defence started to creak, too. Special mention to Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki)
Bubbling under: Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington)
9 - Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Taranaki)
Like his province, Triple T has shifted allegiance to the Chiefs, and they are lucky to have him.
Bubbling under: Jonathan Ruru (Otago)
8 - Luke Whitelock (Canterbury)
Did exactly what is expected of a No.8. The youngest Whitelock made 19 tackles, 14 carries, masses of work in the tight and took not a single backwards step.
Bubbling under: Akira Ioane (Auckland)
7 - Du'Plessis Kirifi (Wellington)
Named after the legendary Springbok No.8, Morne du Plessis, the energetic age-grade star is one to watch for the future.
Bubbling under: James Lentjes (Otago)
6 - Jordan Manihera (Waikato)
If it wasn't for the hat-trick hero, Manihera, it would have been a very one-sided scoreline. But it wasn't just his finishing, he was also huge on defence.
Bubbling under: Marino Mikaele Tu'u (Hawkes' Bay)
5 - Jarrad Hoeata (North Harbour)
Hoeata did everything you would expect of a hard-working lock. The All Black has returned from Cardiff with a point to prove at his new NPC side - and he's doing just that.
Bubbling under: Matiaha Martin (Counties Manukau)
4 - Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury)
A menace at the breakdown and athletic in the open, Dunshea made 99 metres from 9 carries, scoring a try from his one of his four clean breaks.
Bubbling under: Thomas Franklin (Bay of Plenty)
3 - Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury)
Twelve tackles with none missed, a turnover and a stoic resistance to budge in the scrums earns this Highlander a spot in the team of the week.
Bubbling under: Alex Fidow (Wellington)
2 - Asafo Aumua (Wellington)
This week's Player of the Round was into everything good that Wellington did. Making the most breakdown steals of any player this week, putting in some massive hits with 13 tackles and running 78 metres from 5 carries while beating 3 defenders.
Bubbling under: Ben Funnell (Canterbury)
1 - Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau)
The defensive effort Manu put in was only overshadowed by his scrummaging nous.
Bubbling under: Siegfried Fisi’ihoi (Bay of Plenty)
By Richard Neal