TEAM OF THE WEEK: Just unpredictable
NPC SPOTLIGHT: Rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks at Round Six of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
The competition is tightening up and it seems as though any team really can beat any team.
There were several key matches this week, with the battle for the Wooden Spoon still very much on between Bay Of Plenty and Southland who were first up this week.
Canterbury played North Harbour for the head of the Premiership, with the loser being caught or possibly overtaken by third-placed Taranaki.
While Waikato and Auckland had to beat Wellington and Otago, respectively, to stay above Counties and the relegation zone.
Manawatu and Northland battled it out to secure a better position in the race against Otago for a home playoff spot, with Wellington already holding a commanding lead.
Bay Of Plenty’s forwards were already dominating Southland before Elliot Dixon picked up a yellow and gave up a penalty try for collapsing a maul.
Then the Steamers really took over, beating the Stags by 22 points at halftime.
Four minutes into the second half and Dixon’s swinging arm made his second card red and the southerners’ hopes were well and truly dead. The Rotorua-based team didn’t rest on their laurels, turning their advantage into a 57-0 victory.
In a fascinating start to the round’s second match, Auckland kicked off, Josh Renton caught and cleared long into Auckland’s territory.
Auckland came back through 12 phases before Sio Tomkinson intercepted and raced 60 metres for the opening try.
Fletcher Smith’s conversion from wide out was just the third touch by an Otago player.
Auckland had another sustained period of possession and off the back of a scrum, George Moala bounced and spun and drove over to make the score 10-7 to Otago. The hosts hit back immediately after Malakai Fekitoa lost both the ball and his consciousness.
Mitchell Scott made a long run, then several phases later Jona Nareki skipped past a couple to go over.
Otago’s defence was brutal, but completely legal, as they flattened the visitors and put pressure on the scrumhalf and first receiver.
The sides traded tries through Vince Aso and Josh Furno, running into the sheds at 24-14, even though Otago were well behind on possession and territory.
With Auckland not protecting the ball in the tackle, Tei Walden had a field-day ripping the ball away. One of those steals led to Jona Nareki’s second and a commanding lead.
Off yet another Auckland mistake, Tomkinson sealed the result with a scintillating solo try.
With time up on the clock, Auckland picked up a bonus-point penalty try, when Slade McDowall intentionally slapped the ball out of the in-goal, as Auckland looked like scoring, leaving the match at 34-26.
He might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but referee Glen Jackson had an excellent night with the whistle.
In an incredibly fast-paced match, Canterbury looked very un-Canterbury-like for the first 40 minutes. North Harbour’s set-piece pressure showed with Canterbury losing both scrums and line-outs.
The visitors' short passes often went to ground and Harbour took advantage going up 21-10 at half-time.
But in a true game of two halves, a totally different Canterbury emerged from the changing rooms. Two quick tries to Tim Bateman and Michell Drummond and the Cantabs took their first lead of the match.
From there, Canterbury held the ball and attacked for long periods, picking up two more before the home team scored their bonus-point try.
But it was too little, too late and Canterbury bounced back from their thumping at the hands of Wellington with a 41-28 win, securing top spot in the Premiership.
Even with two yellow cards, Wellington out-classed their hosts, Waikato, who have lost two captains to injury this year and looked lost at sea for much of this match.
10 all at half-time, Waikato had six whole minutes inside Wellington’s 22, but couldn’t find the penetration or ingenuity to finish anything off. Then, suddenly, Wellington broke out, scoring 19 points in 10 minutes and that was all she wrote.
Wellington extended their lead at the top of the Championship to 13 points over Otago.
The two main differences between Hawkes’ Bay and Taranaki were Taranaki’s fantastic set pieces and their excellent, short, fast passing.
The Bulls were held up twice in the first quarter and when they drove their scrum over, Brad Weber dove on the ball before Taranaki No.8, Toa Halafihi, could.
Too many infringements led to Pouri Rakete-Stones getting 10 minutes in the bin for offside and Halafihi finally barged over from the resulting scrum. Following a deflected kick, Marty McKenzie beat flying winger Mason Emerson in an 80m race, to score the Bull’s second.
The Magpies hit back just before half-time with Cardiff Vaega dotting down in the right corner and then Ihaia West scored a magnificent individual try, catching a high ball and taking off for the left corner.
Stephen Perofeta started joining the line from fullback and Hawkes’ Bay began breaking apart.
A great Perofeta surge led to Manasa Mataele shrugging off defenders and passing to Pita Sowakula who swan-dived over.
The final try, a minute and a half after the hooter, ended Saturday night’s rugby offerings with Taranaki convincing winners, 48-17 in Napier.
A long period of Bay of Plenty pressure in Rotorua led to Solomona Sakalia catching a charge down by Richard Judd and flopping over the line.
The Steamers’ pressure continued with a big Terrence Hepetema tackle popping the ball loose. Mike Delany scooped the ball up, fended and offloaded for Hepetema to crash over.
Sustained possession and a quick tap by Counties’ scrumhalf, Augie Pulu, saw Fotu Lokotui diving the final metre to score their first. Pulu then got one for himself from a pick and go to even the scores up.
Shortly after half-time and the Steelers went into 5m pick and go mode yet again. However, Pulu saw a big overlap and spun it wide for Albert Nikoro to run it in. Brumbies’ wing Nigel Ah Wong gave a one-two with Nikoro to race in for their bonus-point try.
A controversial penalty against Tevita Nabura for tossing the ball at an opponent’s back led to Lalakai Foketi dragging the ball in and stepping his way over. Delany’s conversion levelled up the scores again.
The home side went ahead again through a brilliant scrum. Jesse Parete twisted and muscled his way over from the back.
Counties’ bench got the final try with replacement Stephen “Beaver” Donald passing to Villiami Taulani who brushed off would-be tacklers and offloaded to Liam Daniela to canter over.
And thus the score remained 31 all. Enough for Counties to step off the bottom of the Premiership and for Bay Of Plenty to leapfrog their way into third in the Championship.
The final game of the round was decided almost as soon as it began with Tasman's openside, Peter Samu scoring after just 52 seconds, and Viliami Lolohea following up 2 minutes later.
Although the Stags fought back midway through the second half, they merely succeeded in reawakening the Makos who scored two more quick tries to kill the match off for good.
Not to take away from what the Makos achieved, but if there was a team willing and able to step up, then Southland would be prime for relegation into the Heartland Championship.
So far this season, they have conceded an average of 46 points per match, while scoring just 14, and are currently sitting dead last, with not a single bonus point.
Score and scorers:
Bay Of Plenty 57-0 Southland
Bay Of Plenty:
Tries: Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion), Hugh Blake, Richard Judd, Lalakai Foketi 2, Monty Ioane 2, Terrence Hepetema, Jesse Parete
Cons: Mike Delany 3, Luke Campbell 2
Otago 34-26 Auckland
Tries: Sio Tomkinson 2, Jona Nareki 2, Josh Furno
Cons: Fletcher Smith 3
Pen: Fletcher Smith
Tries: George Moala 2, Vince Aso, Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion)
Cons: Jono Hickey 2
Manawatu 39-25 Northland
Tries: Newton Tudreu 2, Ambrose Curtis, Hamish Northcott
Cons: Jade Te Rure 2
Pens: Jade Te Rure 5
Tries:Dan Pryor, Jack Ram 2
Cons: Daniel Hawkins 2
Pens: Daniel Hawkins 2
North Harbour 28-41 Canterbury
Tries: Matt Duffie, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Harrison Groundwater, Shaun Stephenson
Cons: Bryn Gatland 4
Tries: Richie Mo’unga, Tim Bateman, Mitchell Drummond 2, Josh McKay
Cons: Richie Mo’unga 5
Pens: Richie Mo’unga 2
Waikato 10-34 Wellington
Try: Bailyn Sullivan
Con: Sevu Reece
Pen: Sevu Reece
Tries: Sam Lousi, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Mateaki Kafatolu, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Alex Fidow
Cons: Daniel Kirkpatrick, Jackson Garden-Bachop 2
Pen: Daniel Kirkpatrick
Hawkes’ Bay 17-48 Taranaki
Tries: Cardiff Vaega, Ihaia West, Jarvy Aoake
Con: Ihaia West
Tries: Toa Halafihi, Marty McKenzie, Ricky Riccitelli, Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion), Pita Sowakula, Sean Wainui, Adrian Wyrill
Cons: Marty McKenzie 3, Clarahn Matoe
Pen: Marty McKenzie
Bay Of Plenty 31-31 Counties Manukau
Bay Of Plenty:
Tries: Solomona Sakalia, Terrence Hepetema, Lalakai Foketi, Jesse Parete
Cons: Mike Delany 4
Pen: Mike Delany
Tries: Fotu Lokotui, Augustine Pulu, Albert Nikoro, Nigel Ah Wong, Liam Daniela
Cons: Baden Kerr 2, Luteru Laulala
Tasman 50-17 Southland
Tries: Peter Samu, Viliami Lolohea 2, James Lowe, Ethan Blackadder, Jordan Taufua, Alex Nankivell, Mitch Hunt
Cons: Tim O'Malley 4, Mitch Hunt
Tries: Mike Molloy, Aleki Morris, Elliot Dixon
Con: Scott Eade
Team of the Week - Round Six:
15 - George Bridge (Canterbury):
Another fantastic showing from the Crusaders' winger, he ran for a round-high 205 metres and was highly involved with 17 carries.
Bubbling Under: Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau)
14 - Newton Tudreu (Manawatu):
Was put through his paces on defence, making 10 tackles. Then on attack, he made 4 clean breaks and scored a brace.
Bubbling Under: Monty Ioane (Bay Of Plenty)
13 - Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington):
Wellington have found yet another class act at centre, Umaga-Jensen has been on the cusp for a while, and with Wes Goosen out, he's taking his chances to impress.
Bubbling Under: Jack Goodhue (Northland)
12 - Teihorangi Walden (Otago):
Excellent on attack and defence, Walden was able to overpower a very highly-rated Auckland midfield and rip away several balls while also putting his outside runners away.
Bubbling Under: George Moala (Auckland)
11 - Jone Macilai (Northland):
Another veteran Crusader doing the business in the NPC, Jone Macilai found a lot of space down the left wing against Manawatu, much of it he created for himself.
Bubbling Under: Shaun Stephenson (North Harbour)
10 - Mike Delany (Bay Of Plenty):
The veteran was instrumental in both the Steamers' matches. He helped get them up to third in the Championship with his guidance and surprising fend and turn of pace.
Bubbling Under: Marty McKenzie (Taranaki)
9 - Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau):
His sniping and passing game is well known, but it was his defence and work over the ball that really stood out this week. Special mention to Mitchell Drummond (Canterbury) and Jamie Booth (Manawatu).
Bubbling Under: Richard Judd (Bay Of Plenty)
8 - Toa Halafihi (Taranaki):
Yet again, Toa Halafihi puts in a special all-round performance with a line-out steal, a breakdown pilfer, a try, 4 defenders beaten and 15 tackles for a Player of the Round outing.
Bubbling Under: Jesse Parete (Bay Of Plenty)
7 - Antonio Kirikiri (Manawatu):
Outplaying Northland at the breakdown is no mean feat this season, and Kirikiri was part of a loose trio that did just that, along with 19 tackles and some powerful running. Special mention to James Lentjies (Otago) for a round-high 22 tackles.
Bubbling Under: Fotu Lokotui (Counties Manukau)
6 - Adam Knight (Otago):
Fantastic over the ball, Knight is an old-school fetcher flanker, nicking 3 at the breakdown, perfect on defence (14 tackles) and strong carrying in the tight exchanges. Special mention to Pita Sowakula (Taranaki) and Jack Ram (Northland).
Bubbling Under: Akira Ioane (Auckland)
5 - Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau):
The Steelers' captain had a dominant line-out performance this week, taking 8, including one against the throw. He was also perfect on defence and was an accurate link in midfield.
Bubbling Under: Jackson Hemopo (Manawatu)
4 - Josh Furno (Otago):
Furno was highly disruptive as a quarter of Auckland's throw-ins went amiss. He also made 21 tackles, missing none and picked up a rare try.
Bubbling Under: Cullum Retallick (Bay Of Plenty)
3 - Alex Fidow (Wellington):
Fidow is showing he is something special, at set piece time, and especially around the park, with some massive carries and heaps of work on defence.
Bubbling Under: Angus Ta’avao (Taranaki)
2 - Ricky Riccitelli (Taranaki):
Taranaki's scrum totally outclassed the Magpies, Riccitelli was instrumental in their breakdown dominance and his 10 tackles and 13 carries were excellent, but it was his linking work that was unexpected.
Bubbling Under: Ash Dixon (Hawkes' Bay)
1 - Solomona Sakalia (Bay Of Plenty):
The big defender put in two massive scrummaging showings this round, demolishing Southland and then putting pressure on Counties when it was needed.
Bubbling Under: Mitchell Graham (Taranaki)
Team of the week - Round Five: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau), 14 Jordan Hyland (Northland), 13 Tim Bateman (Canterbury), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 James Lowe (Tasman), 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington), 9 Mitchell Drummond (Canterbury), 8 Jerome Kaino (Auckland), 7 Billy Harmon (Canterbury), 6 Taleni Seu (Auckland), 5 James Tucker (Waikato), 4 Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury), 3 Michael Alaalatoa (Manawatu), 2 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Angus Ta'avao (Taranaki).
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