TEAM OF THE WEEK: LIONS ROCK THE BOAT
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks at Round Five of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
One week after displaying the gap between the first and second divisions, Canterbury showed the gap between the top and bottom of the Premiership.
In a complete annihilation of Counties Manukau, the current champions dominated every single aspect of the game, from the breakdowns, to set pieces, to broken play, to running lines and so on.
It was an almost perfect demonstration of how to win at NPC level. Canterbury scored 11 tries to 1, with Mitch Drummond picking up four and Tim Bateman bagging a triple to go 78-5 at the final whistle.
The fascinating Thursday match-up was between the two surprise packages of the season thus far: Northland, who have had their best run since they joined the competition and North Harbour who, including the end of last season, have now won 8 in a row.
Northland looked like causing another upset to a Premiership side. With some excellent breakdown work and perfect kicking, the Taniwhas went into the final seven minutes with a 5-point lead.
But Harbour showed their new resolute mindset, by scoring a quick double through replacement fullback Ben Volavola and defence-smashing Matt Vaega to win, 22-31.
There was not a lot to brag about Friday's matches, with Auckland plodding to a victory over cellar-dwellers Southland, and Taranaki easily walking over Bay Of Plenty.
Again Southland stayed in the fight in the first half, trailing by a single point at half time.
But, again, they couldn't cross the try-line in the second stanza, with Auckland scoring twice and picking up a bonus point, through skilful Taleni Seu and powerful Greg Pleasants-Tate.
Bay Of Plenty and Taranaki both have excellent scrums and the battle up front was fascinating.
Bay Of Plenty lost Henry Stowers for 10 minutes for a silly tip-tackle. While he was off, the Bulls scored twice and the Steamers never really recovered.
Taranaki were clearly the better team on the day, picking up a bonus point with Sione Lea's late try and apart from a consolation try by replacement Elijah Nicholas, Taranaki dominated this match to waltz in 29-7.
As a sad side note, fringe All Black Charlie Ngatai had to leave the field due to a head knock, having recently had to sit on the sidelines for a year and a half for concussion-related issues.
Waikato look like a shadow of the side that started this season, falling to another Championship side. This time at home.
Manawatu were courageous on attack, but were unable to cross the chalk until the second half.
With two quick tries, the Turbos eclipsed Waikato, who looked tired and merely couldn’t keep up after their second try, 43 minutes into the match.
Jade Te Rure kept the score ticking over with a perfect night off the tee and Manawatu skipped home to an important 10-23 victory.
A close match between South Island rivals, Otago and Tasman, went crazy when three players were carded, including a red for Levi Aumua for a nasty tip-tackle.
Otago playmaker, Josh Ioane, caught a yellow when a stray hand was judged to have slapped down an almost certain try.
Shortly after that Alex Ainley of Tasman was yellow carded for raking a prone player's head in a breakdown. His excuse of "he was laying all over the ball", is no longer acceptable to referees.
Two minutes later and Aumua went to the showers for the remaining 25 minutes of the match.
This gave Otago the advantage they needed and tries by Sio Tomkinson and Sione Teu, along with Fletcher Smith’s metronomic boot, got the home side within 2 of their Premiership opponents.
However, when they won a scrum against the feed, the game was adjudged to be over and with the players’ protests ringing in his ears, referee Michael Fraser left the field with the score 27-29 to Tasman.
Counties Manukau hosted Hawkes' Bay in the first of the Sunday matches, with both teams desperate to right their sinking ships.
However, it was clear from the kick-off that only one of them was going to win.
Hawkes' Bay seemed direction-less and apart from a few persistent sparks, their lights have gone out.
Counties, on the other hand, looked eager to delve into the dark places and bash the ball up, putting in the hits with and without the ball.
With their general, Augustine Pulu, back from injury directing traffic and Tim Nanai-Williams returning to his best position at fullback, the Steelers looked unstoppable.
It took a while to get going and at half-time the scores were locked up 7-7. But after the break, Counties grabbed the wheel and didn't let go, dotting down 4 times to win the contest 33-14.
Canterbury's early dominance made it appear like it would be another walk in the park from the Premiership leader.
But an intercept from flyhalf Jackson Garden-Bachop led to a 90-metre try for Julian Savea, followed swiftly by an incredible try by hooker Asafo Aumua.
Aumua raced 60 metres, outrunning a wing, stepping a fullback and beating the cover defence to the line for a try that few other players could manage let alone a front-row forward.
And the Lions just kept on scoring. Every time Canterbury knocked the ball on (which was a lot) or Wellington nicked the ball at a ruck (which was a lot), they simply ran the ball in. The Lions didn't even break many tackles, there were just no defenders in the way.
Canterbury had a more accurate line-out, a stronger scrum, a more efficient maul, a better tackle-completion rate, better discipline and beat more defenders per carry but still got thrashed 60-14.
Score and scorers:
Canterbury 78-5 Counties Manukau
Tries: Mitchell Drummond 4, Braydon Ennor, Tim Bateman 3, Rob Thompson, Poasa Waqanibau, Josh McKay
Cons: Richie Mo'unga 10
Pen: Richie Mo'unga
Try: Nigel Ah Wong
Northland 22-31 North Harbour
Try: Jordan Hyland
Con: Peter Breen
Pens: Daniel Hawkins 3, Peter Breen 2
Tries: Tevita Li, Ben Volavola, Matt Vaega
Cons: Bryn Gatland 2
Pens: Bryn Gatland 4
Southland 17-27 Auckland
Tries: Braydon Mitchell, Liam Howley
Cons: Scott Eade 2
Pen: Scott Eade
Tries: Jerome Kaino, Vince Aso, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Taleni Seu
Cons: Jono Hickey 2
Pen: Jono Hickey
Taranaki 29-7 Bay Of Plenty
Tries: Declan O'Donnell, Mitchell Graham, Manasa Mataele, Sione Lea
Cons: Marty McKenzie 3
Pen: Marty McKenzie
Bay Of Plenty:
Try: Elijah Nicholas
Con: Mike Delany
Waikato 10-23 Manawatu
Tries: Pita Ahki, Samisoni Taukei'aho
Tries: Jamie Booth, Harrison Brewer
Cons: Jade TeRure 2
Pens: Jade TeRure 3
Otago 27-29 Tasman
Tries: Tei Walden, Sio Tomkinson, Sione Teu
Cons: Fletcher Smith 3
Pens: Fletcher Smith 2
Tries: Will Jordan, James Lowe, Levi Aumua, Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion)
Cons: Mitch Hunt 2
Pen: Mitch Hunt
Counties Manukau 33-14 Hawkes' Bay
Tries: Tim Nanai-Williams 2, Fotu Lokotui, Johnny Kawau, Kalolo Tuiloma
Cons: Baden Kerr 3, Luteru Laulala
Tries: Ash Dixon, Pasqualle Dunn
Cons: Ihaia West 2
Wellington 60-14 Canterbury
Tries: Julian Savea, Asafo Aumua, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Du'Plessis Kirifi, Malo Tuitama 2, Ben Lam, Regan Verney
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 7
Pens: Jackson Garden-Bachop 2
Tries: Josh McKay, George Bridge
Cons: Richie Mo'unga 2
Team of the Week - Round Five:
15 - Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau):
Fullback is definitely Nanai-Williams best spot, and with his dancing feet he made mince meat out of the Magpies. Special mention to Zac Guildford (Waikato) who sadly succumbed to injury early in the second half.
Bubbling Under: Fletcher Smith (Otago)
14 - Jordan Hyland (Northland):
Jordan has gone from strength to strength this season and if he continues this way, he'll be a regular in Super Rugby.
Bubbling Under: Monty Ioane (Bay Of Plenty)
13 - Tim Bateman (Canterbury):
There are not many days when a centre gets 173 run metres, sets up 2 tries and scores a hat-trick, but Wednesday was one. Special mention to both George Moala (Auckland) and Malakai Fekitoa (Auckland) who played brilliantly in a highly contested position.
Bubbling Under: Matt Vaega (North Harbour)
12 - Rob Thompson (Canterbury):
He does the sort of work that Conrad Smith got huge plaudits for: Thompson marshals defences, sets up his outsides and, more than occasionally, scores tries.
Bubbling Under: Jack Goodhue (Northland)
11 - James Lowe (Tasman):
Showed again that he is more than just a run-and-offload winger, he Maori-sidestepped the Otago fullback and picked up two ruck steals to go with his try and assist.
Bubbling Under: Malo Tuitama (Wellington)
10 - Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington):
Learnt a lot from his troublesome season at the Rebels and has grown into a flyhalf that can run a backline and use front-foot ball to maximum advantage.
Bubbling Under: Richie Mo'unga (Canterbury)
9 - Mitchell Drummond (Canterbury):
Being in the right place at the right time is one thing, but doing it 4 times and being able to finish all 4 chances is something else. Also he has a pass that means he could challenge for the vacating All Blacks third scrumhalf spot. Special mention to Bryn Hall (North Harbour).
Bubbling Under: Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau)
8 - Jerome Kaino (Auckland):
Kaino couldn't stop a rampaging Braydon Mitchell 3 minutes in, but came back to make an incredible 24 carries. Not perfect on defence, but his workrate is phenomenal.
Bubbling Under: Toa Halafihi (Taranaki)
7 - Billy Harmon (Canterbury):
Put in a monster effort during the Ranfurly Shield defence. Harmon was the third-string openside at the beginning of the season but came out with a first-string performance.
Bubbling Under: Vernon Fredericks (Tasman)
6 - Taleni Seu (Auckland):
Another special performance from the up-and-comer, Seu was a line-out maestro on Friday, taking 7, including a steal. He was also great over the ball and carried like a beast. Special mention to Tom Sanders (Canterbury).
Bubbling Under: Johnny Kawau (Counties Manukau)
5 - James Tucker (Waikato):
One of the few Mooloos that shouldn't be embarrassed over the last two weeks.
Bubbling Under: Dominic Bird (Canterbury)
4 - Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury):
Fantastic all-round locking game from the young one-time Crusader. He was almost solely responsible for Counties line-out woes.
Bubbling Under: Josh Furno (Otago)
3 - Michael Alaalatoa (Manawatu):
Caused Waikato no end of headaches at scrum-time and was busy around the park.
Bubbling Under: Alex Fidow (Wellington)
2 - Asafo Aumua (Wellington):
Aumua is a rare talent and it won't be long before he appears at the top levels of the game. Special mention to Nathan Vella (Canterbury).
Bubbling Under: James Parsons (North Harbour)
1 - Angus Ta'avao (Taranaki):
Was more than steady in a difficult scrum battle against the Bay and made a pest of his large frame over breakdowns. Excellent on defence and worked hard in the tight on attack.
Bubbling Under: Alex Hodgman (Canterbury)
Team of the week - Round Four: 15 Fletcher Smith (Otago), 14 Jordan Hyland (Northland), 13 Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau), 12 Regan Verney (Wellington), 11 Braydon Ennor (Canterbury), 10 Mitch Hunt (Tasman), 9 Bryn Hall (North Harbour), 8 Toa Halafihi (Taranaki), 7 Du’Plessis Kirifi (Wellington), 6 Jack Ram (Northland), 5 Josh Dickson (Otago), 4 Josh Furno (Otago), 3 Alex Fidow (Wellington), 2 Liam Polwart (Bay Of Plenty), 1 Ross Wright (Northland).
Team of the week - Round Three: 15 Shaun Stephenson (North Harbour), 14 Marshall Suckling (Canterbury), 13 Matt Vaega (North Harbour), 12 Jack Goodhue (Northland), 11 Jona Nareki (Otago), 10 Brett Cameron (Canterbury), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato), 8 Jordan Taufua (Tasman), 7 Mitchell Jacobson (Waikato), 6 Dillon Hunt (Otago), 5 James Tucker (Waikato), 4 Isaia Walker-Leawere (Wellington), 3 Oli Jager (Canterbury), 2 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Ross Wright (Northland).
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