TEAM OF THE WEEK: Down to the wire
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks at Round Seven of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
Getting down to the business end of the competition, several teams desperately needed to win to stay above the drop zone.
Auckland and Counties Manukau, who played Bay Of Plenty and Northland respectively had a great opportunity to leapfrog Waikato who had to travel to Canterbury to take on the top of the competition.
Otago and Northland fought out a tight, but ill-disciplined, match up in Whangarei, with penalties deciding the outcome.
Otago missed their regular midfield pairing of Tei Walden and Sio Tomkinson, when they came up against Northland's Rene Ranger and Jack Goohue.
Northland started with a stupendous try to speedy fullback Solomona Alaimalo.
In-form Jack Goodhue got the ball passed directly to him by the opposition scrumhalf, after Jona Nareki made a great break.
Goodhue stepped and bumped his way through the disarrayed defensive line, offloading to Peter Breen who passed to Alaimalo, and he weaved past the final defender to run under the posts.
Highlanders' openside James Lentjies left the field for the remainder of the first half because of a wayward swinging arm off the back of a lineout.
With both flyhalves kicking goals to perfection the score kept ticking over.
With Alaimalo running well and the forwards making easy metres around rucks, Jone Macilai found space 5 metres out and finished off a long period of possession to make the lead 20 points 43 minutes into the second stanza.
Fletcher Smith showed off his surprising speed when he outran several Taniwha to dive on Jonathan Ruru's grubber into in-goal.
Even when Otago's replacement Slade McDowall was sin-binned for being offside, the southerners kept the notherners out with some excellent defence.
Otago made a good comeback, with a nifty cross-kick by the returning Hayden Parker to Vilimona Koroi, who swerved in for a try.
Two minutes into overtime and Jona Nareki got yet another try this season to get Otago a bonus point for losing within seven, 32-30.
Taranaki and Tasman started at a frenetic pace in New Plymouth, with Viliami Lolohea recklessly tackling Seta Tamanivalu in the air.
Lolohea was lucky to escape with a yellow but shunned the referee's lenience by doing the exact same thing to the same player just 11 minutes after returning to play.
While the wing was off the first time the teams traded tries.
Stephen Perofeta, who had a fantastic game running the cutter for Taranaki, set up Sean Wainui and Andrew Makalio powered over off the back of a Tasman maul.
Perofeta broke and passed inside for Jonathan Fa'auli to score before Lolohea left for an early shower and flankers Lochlan Boshier and Pita Sowakula both crossed to secure the bonus point.
Tasman entertained a long period of possession deep inside the home side's territory.
Finally, Alex Nankivell dived over 4 minutes into ref's time to leave the score 28-12 at half time.
Taranaki re-started at a high pace, with Tamanivalu, Marty McKenzie and Perofeta all making good runs.
Perofeta offloaded to fast 8th man Toa Halafihi, who got a try as reward for all his hard work around the track.
Alex Ainley hit right back after a gaggle of pick ‘n goes broke the defences down.
Will Jordan was yellow carded for a deliberate slapdown and Sean Wainui immediately got his brace with the Makos down two backs.
Mitch Hunt picked up a consolation bonus point try but Taranaki temporarily moved to the top of Division one.
Hawkes' Bay turned up at Albany Stadium with nothing to lose and played with a fire that they haven't had since they lost the Ranfurly Shield over a year ago.
The Magpies' scrum was well outclassed and an early penalty try was the cost.
However, veteran hooker Ash Dixon was running with the vitality of a man half his age as he scored one, set up another and broke the line several times.
Shaun Stephenson had played well but little had been going his way. That changed at the start of the second when he received the ball wide.
With no space, Stephenson grubbered between two Magpies, kicked it on the bounce, bust past two chasers and collected it for a sensational try.
The visitors stole the lead back again after a weaving Richard Buckman carry was followed up by several tight drives ending in a try to prop Jason Long.
Right on the three-quarter mark, Harbour's powerful #8 Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a was sent to the naughty-boy's chair for his second late tackle.
But that didn't stop Matt Duffie from a magical step and shoot for the line to even up the scores.
Bryn Gatland got the home side up with an additional goal and although Hawkes' Bay tried hard they just fell short, 33-30.
Manawatu started with a bang against the hopeless Southland.
The visitors scored two tries within 3 minutes before Southland joined the match.
Three-quarters of the way through the game and, at 20-10, Manawatu fell asleep and let Southland do the unthinkable by tying up the game.
Hurricane Jason Enery got out of bed just in time, but Southland got their first point of the season, losing 20-25.
Auckland put Bay Of Plenty in a similar predicament to Southland, leading 38-0 after 60 minutes.
The Steamers came back strongly in the final quarter touching down three times and only just missing out on a bonus point for a fourth.
However, a very tired Auckland kept them out to convincingly win and move off the relegation spot.
The Ranfurly Shield was never in danger as a below-par Waikato failed to find attacking impetus and Canterbury finished most of their half-chances.
Although Waikato dominated the line-out and possession for the first half, they made silly mistakes and the home side capitalised through wings Braydon Ennor and Josh McKay and powerful centre Rob Thompson.
Waikato struck just before the break with #13 Pita Ahki brushing off Richie Mo'unga and shrinking the deficit to 25.
A try for Tom Sanders and two for Sevu Reece in the second forty, which was heavily dominated by Waikato attacking and then losing the ball, only to win it back and repeat the process.
Canterbury looked like they had closcked out after 45 minutes and were comfortable merely testing their defence for the remainder of the messy match, which they won easily, 37-17.
Wellington's discipline let them down early against Championship opponents Otago, who kicked accurately through fullback Fletcher Smith.
The Lion's young prop Alex Fidow ran like a centre from an inside ball 30 metres out to score a try and keep them close.
Ben Lam got a sneaky blindside try off a scrum, but Otago hit straight back off a fortunate rebound that fell for Jonathan Ruru.
Wellington's discipline let them down at key times, as did Otago's handling. Otago ran inside at halftime a mere one point up.
Otago's defence and Fletcher Smith's boot kept them ahead, until Wellington's #6, Mateaki Kafatolu, charged down Ruru's kick and Ben Lam out-gassed the defenders to even the game up.
Julian Savea touched down off a beautiful Jackson Garden-Bachop pass for the Lions to take the lead.
The game came right down to the wire, when Wellington's replacement, Billy Proctor, was sin-binned for repeated infringements inside the danger zone.
Otago centre, Sio Tomkinson grubbered perfectly for speedy seven's star Viliami Koroi to chase and he levelled the scores yet again.
The home team went back on attack and sustained pressure led to a penalty five minutes from time, which Garden-Bachop slotted with ease, leaving the game 27-24 to Wellington.
Counties Manukau were a step above Northland on defence, especially in the line-outs where they stole half (6) of Northland's throw-ins.
With so much on the line, Counties' big lights once again shone and both fullback Tim Nanai-Williams and replacement Stephen Donald dotted down, with Albert Nikoro scoring within the first minute.
Northland tried hard but could never quite keep up with the Steelers, who hopped off the bottom place, leaving Waikato in serious threat of relegation.
Score and scorers:
Northland 32-30 Otago
Tries:Solomona Alaimalo, Jone Macilai
Cons: Peter Breen 2
Pens: Peter Breen 6
Tries:Fletcher Smith, Vilimoni Koroi, Jona Nareki
Cons: Fletcher Smith 3
Pens: Fletcher Smith 3
Taranaki 40-26 Tasman
Tries:Sean Wainui 2, Jonathan Fa'auli, Lachlan Boshier, Pita Sowakula, Toa Halafihi
Cons: Marty McKenzie 5
Tries:Andrew Makalio, Alex Nankivell, Alex Ainley, Mitch Hunt
Cons: Billy Guyton 2, Tim O'Malley
North Harbour 33-30 Hawkes' Bay
Tries:Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion), Shaun Stephenson, Matt Duffie
Cons: Bryn Gatland 2
Pens: Bryn Gatland 3
Tries:Ash Dixon, Cardiff Vaega, Jason Long
Cons: Ihaia West 3
Pens: Ihaia West 2
Southland 20-25 Manawatu
Tries:Ma'anaki Selby-Rickit, Bill Fukofuka
Cons: Scott Eade 2
Pens: Scott Eade 2
Tries:Tom Crozier, Newton Tudreu, Kayne Hammington, Jason Emery
Cons: Otere Black
Pens: Jade TeRure
Auckland 38-19 Bay Of Plenty
Tries:Joe Ravouvou 2, Vince Aso, Melani Nanai
Cons: Jono Hickey 3
Pens: Jono Hickey 2
Bay Of Plenty:
Tries:Henry Stowers, Thomas Franklin, Jesse Parete
Cons: Luke Campbell 2
Canterbury 37-17 Waikato
Tries:Braydon Ennor, Rob Thompson, Josh McKay, Tom Sanders
Cons: Richie Mo'unga 4
Pens: Richie Mo'unga 3
Tries:Pita Ahki, Sevu Reece 2
Con: Sevu Reece
Wellington 27-24 Otago
Tries:Alex Fidow, Ben Lam 2, Julian Savea
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 2
Pen: Jackson Garden-Bachop
Tries:Jonathan Ruru, Vilimoni Koroi
Cons: Fletcher Smith
Pens: Fletcher Smith 4
Counties Manukau 25-16 Northland
Tries:Albert Nikoro, Tim Nanai-Williams, Stephen Donald
Cons: Baden Kerr, Luteru Laulala
Pens: Baden Kerr, Luteru Laulala
Con: Peter Breen
Pens: Peter Breen 3
Team of the Week - Round Seven:
15 - George Bridge (Canterbury):
So calm and yet so quick, everything he touches turns to gold and he is getting involved a lot. Special mentions to Solomona Alaimalo (Northland) and Shaun Stephenson (North Harbour).
Bubbling Under: Marty McKenzie (Taranaki)
14 - Matt Duffie (North Harbour):
Didn't get too many chances but made the most of those he got. He made almost 20 metres per carry, breaking 5 tackles and scoring a try.
Bubbling Under: Jordan Hyland (Northland)
13 - Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington):
Another huge performance from this rising star. His defence needs a bit of work but he is marvellous on attack.
Bubbling Under: Sean Wainui (Taranaki)
12 - Jack Goodhue (Northland):
Everything is looking up for Jack Goodhue and an All Blacks cap is surely in his future if he continues to put in attacking and defensive performances such as these.
Bubbling Under: Richard Buckman (Hawkes' Bay)
11 - Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki):
Made mince-meat out of a very good Tasman defence, even after being tackled in the air twice and landing badly, he got back up and bowled a few more over.
Bubbling Under: Joe Ravouvou (Auckland):
10 - Bryn Gatland (North Harbour) :
Gatland is one of the most consistent players this year and against a fired up Hawkes' Bay, he calmly went about his business and picked up 16 points with a perfect display of kicking.
Bubbling Under: Fletcher Smith (Otago)
9 - Sam Nock (Northland):
The quick ball he provided was key in getting Northland up and over a very good Otago side.
Bubbling Under: Jonathan Ruru (Otago)
8 - Akira Ioane (Auckland):
The older Ioane has hit his stride again after losing a bit of confidence late in the Super Rugby campaign. Special mention to Reed Prinsep (Canterbury) and Harrison Brewer (Manawatu).
Bubbling Under: Toa Halafihi (Taranaki)
7 - Du'Plessis Kirifi (Wellington):
The Samoan flanker is an exciting attacking threat in a position that isn't seeing many ball carriers this NPC. He is also a handy line-out option for one so short.
Bubbling Under: Fotu Lokotui (Counties Manukau)
6 - Tom Sanders (Canterbury):
Sanders looks like he is back to his old form barging past defenders and stopping attackers in their tracks.
Bubbling Under: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Manawatu)
5 - Will Mangos (Wellington):
A huge effort by Mangos, with 9 tackles, none missed and 8 defenders beaten, while he is also a solid line-out option.
Bubbling Under: James Tucker (Waikato)
4 - Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau):
Captain Fantastic put in another big defensive performance, stealing both line-outs and breakdown ball.
Bubbling Under: Jacob Skeen (Waikato)
3 - Alex Fidow (Wellington):
While much of the talk is about his hooker teammate, Fidow has been clocking up the tries and is exceptionally tough to put on the ground. This week was a Player of the Round performance.
Bubbling Under: Sione Mafileo (North Harbour)
2 - Ash Dixon (Hawkes' Bay):
Dixon puts in so much work, sometimes he can be taken for granted, but not when he also runs the ball the way he did against North Harbour. A true talisman for the Magpies.
Bubbling Under: Kurt Eklund (Auckland)
1 - Alex Hodgman (Canterbury):
Canterbury somehow keep churning out the work-horse props, with Hodgman in the same vein as several All Blacks he shares a locker-room with for the Crusaders.
Bubbling Under: Tolu Fahamokioa (Wellington)
Team of the week - Round Six: 15 George Bridge (Canterbury), 14 Newton Tudreu (Manawatu), 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington), 12 Teihorangi Walden (Otago), 11 Jone Macilai (Northland), 10 Mike Delany (Bay Of Plenty), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Toa Halafihi (Taranaki), 7 Antonio Kirikiri (Manawatu), 6 Adam Knight (Otago), 5 Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau), 4 Josh Furno (Otago), 3 Alex Fidow (Wellington), 2 Ricky Riccitelli (Taranaki), 1 Solomona Sakalia (Bay Of Plenty).
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 AsafoAumua (Wellington), 1 LoniUhila (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 TeToiroaTahuriorangi (Taranaki), 8 Luke Whitelock (Canterbury), 7 Du'PlessisKirifi (Wellington), 6 Jordan Manihera (Waikato), 5 JarradHoeata (North Harbour), 4 Mitchell Dunshea (Canterbury), 3 SiateTokolahi (Canterbury), 2 AsafoAumua (Wellington), 1 Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau).
By Richard Neal