TEAM OF THE WEEK: Turnaround kings
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks at Round Three of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
This week heralded the start of the fast turn-around games, including an extra game on Wednesdays.
First up, Waikato has one of the hardest schedules this season, forced to play three Premiership teams in nine days. Their first opponent this week was Auckland, who have to play three matches within just eight days.
Auckland put up a strong forward effort, but when Marcel Renata was carded 54 minutes in, for collapsing a maul, the resulting penalty try put the score out of reach and Waikato cantered home, 27-35.
The next two matches showed that although the introduced salary cap has evened out many of the teams, there are still two that stand above the rest.
Last week's Battle of the Bays heroes were demolished by the men from the capital, while Canterbury stood over Hawkes' Bay the way Victor Matfield stood over 'King' Carlos.
Then on Saturday, Otago tried desperately to lose to Manawatu, but someone didn't tell wing Jona Nareki, who couldn't help himself and had to go and score a hat-trick.
Returning All Black, Nehe Milner-Skudder was totally shut out of the game, including being flattened by an excellent Tei Walden hit that left him clutching his guts.
While his All Black teammate, Ngani Laumape, picked up a typical try early on and made some strong runs late.
Otago's first half was very shaky, but some possibly harsh words at halftime, meant they suddenly clicked, with their round-the-corner passes finally going to hand. They used that move multiple times to good advantage especially for their back three of Koroi, Scott and Nareki.
With Manawatu hot on attack, Otago's reserves defended brilliantly keeping the Turbos bonus-pointless at 40-30.
Northland came out with a point to prove against the other extreme of the country, Southland.
Rene Ranger had his best game in years, finding and creating holes in the creaking Stag's defence and combining well with wing Jone Macilai and fullback Alaimalo.
The Taniwha were just too good, dotting down six times to one, with forwards and backs alike sharing the spoils.
Waisake Naholo returned to No.14 for Taranaki, and he set up the game's first try. Unfortunately for the Bulls, it was for their opposition, Counties Manukau.
His poor kick was brought back by Baden Kerr, who stepped Naholo and passed to Fijian flyer, Tevita Nabura, who had no trouble getting the ball down.
Poor discipline and handling led to a messy first half in the freezing conditions, but Taranaki finally gelled, with a couple of quick passes by Stephen Perofeta and left wing Manasa Mataele giving Naholo an easy canter over for a 1-point lead.
Counties powered back with Gafatasi Su'a and Sam Henwood combining well to send Under-20 scrumhalf Jonathan Taumateine over.
The mixed night continued for Naholo, who scored again, almost upside-down after some quick hands got the ball wide. But shortly after, he fluffed a pass messing up a sure try. However, Ricky Riccitelli dived over later to secure the win 30-27.
Tasman worked their way into a 17-point lead by the three-quarter mark in the match. Mitch Hunt kicked 5 from 5 for a personal 11-point haul that ultimately won the battle against Waikato.
However with 15 minutes to go, mercurial wing, James Lowe, was yellow-carded for failing to catch his intercept, which was then ruled a deliberate knock-down.
Waikato stormed back with two quick tries.
Then, with time up and 80 metres out, Mitch Jacobson snatched his third breakdown ball of the day. Twenty-one phases later, Waikato won a penalty 10 metres from Tasman's try-line and the resulting throw-in led to Tawera Kerr-Barlow diving over.
With all the pressure on young replacement Matt Lansdown to tie the game in the 86th minute, Tasman's Finlay Christie charged so early that he was able to take the ball off the kicking tee before Lansdown had even begun his run-up.
After resetting the ball, Waikato had to settle for two losing bonus points.
The Battle of the Bridge promised more than it had in years, with North Harbour more competitive and, both they and Auckland, sat in the Premiership.
Bryn Gatland released his backs, with Matt Duffie making a break, Matt Vaega offloading and Shaun Stephenson crossing after just over a minute of play.
Harbour continued to apply pressure, with an excellent tighthead scrum, some astonishing defence and Matt Vaega, offloading, breaking tackles, crushing dreams and generally being brilliant.
Harbour never stopped attacking the dismal (and clearly drained) Auckland, with Vaega pilfering and Bryn Hall, noticing there was no fullback, kicked long for Stephenson to pick up a brace.
Soon after, Vaega sent Li away for his first try, before James Parsons intercepted and took off for a 50-metre run with the stunned Auckland backline unable to catch the speedy hooker.
Volavola finished off a Li break to leave the score at a resounding and embarrassing 57-10.
Score and scorers:
Auckland 27-35 Waikato
Tries: Patrick Tuipulotu, Marcel Renata, Sione Havili Talitui
Cons: Jordan Trainor 3
Pens: Jordan Trainor 2
Tries: Tyler Campbell, Jordan Manihera, Penalty Try, Sevu Reece
Cons: Matthew Lansdown, Sam Christie
Pens: Matthew Lansdown 3
Bay of Plenty 10-31 Wellington
Bay of Plenty:
Try: Terrence Hepetema
Con: Mike Delany
Pen: Mike Delany
Tries: Malo Tuitama, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Ben Lam, Wes Goosen, Asafo Aumua
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 3
Hawkes' Bay 10-53 Canterbury
Try: Hugh Renton
Con: Ihaia West
Pen: Ihaia West
Tries: Brett Cameron, Marshall Suckling 2, Braydon Ennor 2, Josh McKay, Kaveinga Finau
Cons: Brett Cameron 6
Pens: Brett Cameron 2
Otago 40-30 Manawatu
Tries: Jonathan Ruru, Jona Nareki 3, Mitchell Scott, Sam Anderson-Heather
Cons: Fletcher Smith 2
Pens: Josh Ioane, Fletcher Smith
Tries: Ngani Laumape, Jackson Hemopo, Jamie Booth
Cons: Otere Black 3
Pens: Otere Black 2, Jade Te Rure
Southland 13-44 Northland
Try: Aleki Morris
Con: Mike Molloy
Pens: Scott Eade 2
Tries: Jack Goodhue, Jordan Hyland, Sam Nock, Jone Macilai, Solomona Alaimalo, Jordan Olsen
Cons: Daniel Hawkins 4
Pen: Daniel Hawkins 2
Taranaki 30-27 Counties Manukau
Tries: Waisake Naholo 2, Charlie Ngatai, Ricky Riccitelli
Cons: Marty McKenzie 2
Tries: Tevita Nabura, Jonathan Taumateine, Joe Royal
Cons: Baden Kerr 3
Pens: Baden Kerr 2
Waikato 27-31 Tasman
Tries: Loni Uhila, Sevu Reece, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Zac Guildford, Tawera Kerr-Barlow
Cons: Matthew Lansdown 2
Tries: Billy Guyton, Vernon Fredericks, Will Jordan, Jordan Taufua
Cons: Mitch Hunt 4
Pen: Mitch Hunt
North Harbour 57-10 Auckland
Tries: Shaun Stephenson 2, Matt Duffie, Tevita Li 2, James Parsons, Ben Volavola
Cons: Bryn Gatland 5
Pens: Bryn Gatland 4
Try: George Moala
Con: Jono Hickey
Pen: Jono Hickey
Team of the Week - Round Three:
15 - Shaun Stephenson (North Harbour):
The young man is going from strength to strength and his finishing is top drawer. Special mention to Solomona Alaimalo (Northland) and Zac Guildford (Waikato).
Bubbling Under: George Bridge (Canterbury)
14 - Marshall Suckling (Canterbury):
Suckling has been around the Canterbury scene without too many chances, after this performance he might have solidified a more regular run-on.
Bubbling Under: Mitchell Scott (Otago)
13 - Matt Vaega (North Harbour):
Keeping an All Black centre pairing quiet would usually be considered enough for a good game, but this week's Player of the Round not only did that, but also directly set up three tries, while having a hand in all seven.
Bubbling Under: Rene Ranger (Northland)
12 - Jack Goodhue (Northland):
Two similarly astute attacking performances from the two best inside centres in the competition. However, Goodhue takes the position because of his significantly better defence.
Bubbling Under: Ngani Laumape (Manawatu)
11 - Jona Nareki (Otago):
Not only scoring a hat-trick, but beating 8 defenders while carrying for 135 metres to get it. Special mention to Tevita Li (North Harbour), Jone Macilai (Northland) and Ben Lam (Wellington).
Bubbling Under: Braydon Ennor (Canterbury)
10 - Brett Cameron (Canterbury):
Where does Canterbury keep finding these fly-halves? 23 points, a try, 2 assists and 8 of 9 from the tee.
Bubbling Under: Bryn Gatland (North Harbour)
9 - Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato):
Waikato will surely miss the strongest scrumhalf in New Zealand rugby. Ripping the ball from the hands of a hooker is a prime example of the Hamiltonian's strength.
Bubbling Under: Billy Guyton (Tasman)
8 - Jordan Taufua (Tasman):
The Crusaders strongman made the most metres of any Tasman player, while smashing a normally resolute Waikato defensive line. Special mention to Luke Whitelock (Canterbury) and Toa Halafihi (Taranaki).
Bubbling Under: Akira Ioane (Auckland)
7 - Mitchell Jacobson (Waikato):
His younger brother has been stealing the headlines since the under 20's World Cup, but Mitch is showing that his skills over the ball are worthy of a line or two.
Bubbling Under: Sam Henwood (Counties Manukau)
6 - Dillon Hunt (Otago):
Hunt has a huge workrate and with his accuracy improving weekly, he'll have a long career ahead of him.
Bubbling Under: Hugh Blake (Bay of Plenty)
5 - James Tucker (Waikato):
Played most of the 248 minutes of Waikato's short-turnaround matches and made 19 tackles against Auckland, not missing a single one.
Bubbling Under: Leon Power (Taranaki)
4 - Isaia Walker-Leawere (Wellington):
Putting in huge hits, scoring a try in the tight and very able over a breakdown, the under 20's World Cup winner is showing he's ready for the step up.
Bubbling Under: Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury)
3 - Oli Jager (Canterbury):
Powerful scrummager and excellent defence, Jager was an integral part of Canterbury's forward dominance.
Bubbling Under: Hisa Sasagi (Otago)
2 - Asafo Aumua (Wellington)
It's going to take an incredible game for any hooker to take this spot from Aumua. He broke 9 tackles, missed none of his own and threw 15 accurate line-outs.
Bubbling Under: James Parsons (North Harbour)
1 - Ross Wright (Northland):
Put in several long carries, plus he held firm against a strong Southland scrum.
Bubbling Under: Alex Hodgman (Canterbury)
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 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau).
By Richard Neal