Team of the Week: Final round flurries
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks at Round Nine of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
It was the final round of the regular season and few things were set in stone.
The Premiership play-off teams were decided, but not where they would be played or who they would face.
North Harbour could theoretically rise to first or more easily slip to fourth; Tasman could jump to third, and Canterbury and Taranaki were most likely fighting for top spot.
The Championship race saw four teams playing musical chairs for the final three seats, with Wellington already sitting down.
Northland had the toughest ask (facing runaway leaders Wellington in the capital), but the Taniwhas were second in points.
Otago had the easiest task (even though they were fifth in points), taking on southern rivals in a Highlanders' derby against wooden spooners Southland.
Bay Of Plenty had to beat struggling Waikato who were desperate to move out of the relegation drop zone.
Finally, Manawatu were sitting fourth, but had two games this round to try to nab second position and a home semifinal.
They took on Hawkes' Bay in the last game of the season, and first up they played new Ranfurly Shield holders, Taranaki.
Taranaki had two matches this round and after beating Canterbury last week, they were equal on points and in prime position in the Premiership.
The Bulls needed five points from the short turn-around matches to seal the top spot.
Their first game doubled as their first Ranfurly Shield defence in five years and they looked up for it.
There was no point in the match with their southern neighbours, Manawatu, when the home side seemed like losing.
Their forwards dominated early collisions and set pieces and with All Blacks Tamanivalu and Naholo in block-busting form, they raced out to a four-try lead, with the bonus-point in the bag.
Manawatu fought back but it was always Taranaki's match.
Both sets of reserves played magnificently, scoring half the tries on the night. With Manawatu replacement halfback Jamie Booth playing especially well.
Kylem O'Donnell made the finish of the year, collecting a long grubber from giant reserve flank Adrian Wyrill, and sneaking it inside the dead-ball line while at full speed.
Wyrill picked up one of his own shortly after, with a powerful burst off the back of a Tamanivalu pop pass.
That secured the Ranfurly Shield for the off-season and the bonus-point win for Taranaki meant that no matter what happened in their match with North Harbour, the
Bulls would take the minor premiership.
In the Thursday night match, Wellington fielded an almost full-strength side, including new All Black flank Vaea Fifita.
They were up against the surprise package of the year, second-placed Northland, in what was a crucial game for the Taniwha's play-off hopes, and completely unimportant for the Lions.
Northland showed the spirit in defence and ferocity at the breakdown that have been the corner-stone of their success this season and with veteran centre Rene Ranger and leading candidate for player of the year, Jack Goodhue, playing superbly, Northland began strongly.
Northland dominated early territory and possession and were rewarded with a try to form wing Jordan Hyland.
With that, Wellington were spurred into action, scoring two quick tries to Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Jackson Garden-Bachop, to lead at half-time by just two points.
The second half belonged to Wellington and they proceeded to tear apart the Taniwha's structures and pile on the points.
Almost immediately after entering the fray, replacement Asafo Aumua scored off the back of a ruck.
His front-row partner Alex Fidow then crossed for his seventh of the year and after Julian Savea picked one up out wide, Aumua crossed on the other wing for his seventh of the year.
Jack Goodhue finished off a solid night for Northland by getting a consolation try, but it was little consolation as they left without a bonus point, needing results to go their way to make the Championship semifinals.
Canterbury and Auckland added to the fiercest rivalry in New Zealand rugby history.
The home side, Auckland, needed a win to stay clear of the relegation zone, whereas Canterbury had to get a bonus-point win to snatch back top spot.
Both needed other results to go their way if they failed on Friday night.
Off the back of multiple penalties and several strong mauls, Braydon Ennor opened the scoring for the visitors.
Auckland immediately scored off their first chance with Joe Ravouvou breaking and Vince Aso dotting down.
Another excellent forward effort by Canterbury saw Ben Nee Nee sent for a sit down for illegally entering a maul.
Two minutes later and fullback Caleb Makene finished a good team try for the visitors.
A couple of Jono Hickey penalties off some strong offence had Auckland leading at half-time by a single point.
Canterbury came out at double time and started making metres up the middle, with replacement scrumhalf Jack Stratton sneaking over.
A line-out went very long and bounced up to Ravouvou who cut Canterbury apart to take the lead back.
On the three-quarter mark, Richie Mo'unga made a great step and run which lead to Stratton getting a brace against the upright.
Kaveinga Finau earned a ten-minute break after grabbing the halfback during a long break from Auckland.
Through some excellent structured defence, Canterbury extended their lead with only 14 players on the field and were able to close the game out, 27-32.
Auckland had to wait for Waikato's result before knowing whether they would drop out of the Premiership for the first time ever.
There were fantastic conditions for the big crowd to view the Chiefs' derby between Bay Of Plenty and Waikato at the Tauranga Domain.
Buoyed by the home crowd sitting right on the edge of the field, the Steamers put in some big hits and early pressure.
After a dozen phases, fullback Chase Tiatia dummied and nipped over untouched for the home side.
A penalty to the Mooloos gave them a maul 5 metres out. Huge prop, Atu Moli, drove deep and later it was his pick 'n go that scored their first points.
An aimless Harrison Levien box-kick gave the dangerous Steamers backline space, and they exploited it with Monty Ioane making ground and Lalakai Foketi stepping out of some weak tackles to get BoP ahead.
Mike Delany's superior kicking game gave the home side some fantastic territory to attack from, but Waikato's defence was strong and desperate.
Until another pointless kick again gave Ioane space and Terrence Hepetema finished to give the Steamers breathing room.
Foketi went from hero to villain as he was dismissed for 10 for slapping down a pass.
Waikato immediately scored through his channel before and after half-time, with Sevu Reece and Pita Ahki busting over to draw level.
Off the back of almost 15 minutes of attacking scrums and line-outs, and with Pita Ahki in the bin, Foketi crashed over in the arms of four Mooloos.
Delany's kicking again gave the Steamers great attacking ball and reserve scrumhalf Luke Campbell dived over.
Waikato hit back through a strong Laghlan McWhannell drive and with one minute left Loni Uhila went over to give Waikato a chance.
Some strong carries got Waikato into BoP's half but yet again they couldn't close out the match and were sent spiralling into the Championship for the first time.
Meanwhile, the Bay can celebrate with a home semi-final next week off the back of a hard-fought 36-32 victory.
With nothing to lose, Southland coach Hoani MacDonald threw some new boys in, to play against an experienced Otago side with regular points-magnet Fletcher Smith on the bench.
Southland enjoyed some early parity but Otago soon took over the Highlanders' derby, due to superior forward play.
Backs Mitchell Scott, Jona Nareki, Sio Tomkinson and Tei Walden all benefitted from Otago's dominance of collisions and set pieces.
The Stags had some positive moments with Lewis Ormond bagging a double, but with only a single point in the Championship, they have a lot to work on before 2018.
Otago, on the other hand, guaranteed a semi-final, pushing Northland down to fourth, with Manawatu still to play their final match.
There were big swings when Counties Manukau hosted Tasman, on the scoreboard and on the field.
The visiting Makos scored two tries with 6 minutes and the Steelers hit back twice in the next 10 minutes.
Nigel Ah Wong intercepted a long pass to speed away for his double right before half-time.
Vernon Fredericks made a clean break, Pete Samu continued on and Alex Nankivell went in for a try less than two minutes into the second half.
Counties got back on attack and went through 6 phases before Tim Nanai-Williams got a superb offload to Orbyn Leger, who rolled over to close the gap to three.
Tasman debutant Saniuela Moli got the ignominy of a yellow card that sent Counties into the lead for dragging down a maul causing a penalty try.
At the 65-minute mark, two terrible consecutive tackles led to a red card for Albert Nikoro (swinging arm to the head) and a yellow for Baden Kerr (shoulder to the head).
With Tasman running out of props, the scrums went uncontested, but that seemed to help Counties more as they got a lot of quick ball off the back.
Nanai-Williams split the defence and out-ran the cover to extend their lead.
Although Bily Guyton held up one try, Sam Henwood powered over off the resulting scrum and put the Steelers out of reach of the Makos.
Captain Jimmy Tupou took the final conversion and with a fantastic rocket-kick, he raised the flags.
With the 52-30 scoreline, Tasman and North Harbour were set in their fourth and third places in the Premiership respectively.
North Harbour showed they were serious contenders when they went out to a 33-19 lead at half-time.
Taranaki made a number of changes to their side, having already solidified top spot in the tournament.
Stand-in flyhalf Ben Volavola used his long skip-pass to great effect, setting Tevita Li and Shaun Stephenson into wide gaps.
Li intercepted to get a hat-trick before half-time, while Stephenson set up a try with a brilliant offload then scored one of his own.
Taranaki came back late, with Charlie Ngatai joining the line from fullback with a miss-pass of his own and No.12 Daniel Waite broke the line on several occasions.
Ten minutes into the second half and Li exploited an overlap to send Matt Duffie away, doubling the Bulls score.
In a showing of skills, power and pace, Tevita Li went in for his fourth and fifth of the night.
Eighteen-year-old Ciarahn Matoe got a brace on debut for Taranaki, but it was not enough to even get close as the Hibiscus won 64-33.
An ill-disciplined and overly enthusiastic Hawkes' Bay turned up to welcome visitors Manawatu.
The Magpies backs set to entertain their die-hard fans and flung the ball around, while the Turbos were intent on making the semi-finals and played solid set-piece rugby.
Ihaia West passed between his own players and straight to opposition centre Lewis Marshall who ran in untouched from halfway.
A disgraceful fight saw idiotic Manawatu No.14 knee an opponent on the ground and stupid veteran Tony Lamborn throw numerous punches.
Both players should know better and it was the end of both of their seasons after red cards were handed out.
Manawatu drove off the back of the resulting penalty and that led to Cadwallader going over late in the half.
Gareth Evans and Brad Weber both had great games and were rewarded with a try each early in the second half.
Mason Emerson followed up a Richard Buckman grubber to score and Buckman took a Sam McNichol offload at pace to score another.
Jonah Lowe intercepted and sped 85 metres for the Magpies fifth, with Emerson getting their sixth as they showed what they could have been bringing to the competition all season.
Jason Emery was put into a gap from a neat set-piece move and Manawatu had 10 minutes to score 13 points and save their season.
Jade Te Ruru dove over after some desperate attack from the visitors and there was one minute left on the clock.
It was a fantastic finish to the regular season as Manawatu piled on the pressure, but it was handling and passing errors that plagued the Turbos and meant that Northland's fairytale season continued.
The semifinals will be:
Taranaki v Tasman
Canterbury v North Harbour
Wellington v Northland
Bay Of Plenty v Otago
Score and scorers:
Taranaki 46-25 Manawatu
Tries: Seta Tamanivalu 2, Waisake Naholo 2, Charlie Ngatai, Kylem O'Donnell, Adrian Wyrill
Cons: Marty McKenzie 4
Pen: Marty McKenzie
Tries: Jamie Booth, Ambrose Curtis, Jade Te Rure
Cons: Jade Te Rure 2
Pens: Otere Black 2
Wellington 36-18 Northland
Tries: Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Asafo Aumua 2, Alex Fidow, Julian Savea
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 3
Tries: Jordan Hyland, Jack Goodhue
Cons: Daniel Hawkins
Pens: Daniel Hawkins 2
Auckland 27-32 Canterbury
Tries: Vince Aso, Joe Ravouvou, Tinoai Faiane
Cons: Jono Hickey 2, Harry Plummer
Pens: Jono Hickey 2
Tries: Braydon Ennor, Caleb Makene, Jack Stratton 2
Cons: Richie Mo'unga 3
Pens: Richie Mo'unga 2
Bay Of Plenty 36-32 Waikato
Bay Of Plenty:
Tries: Chase Tiatia, Lalakai Foketi 2, Terrence Hepetema, Luke Campbell
Cons: Mike Delany 4
Pen: Mike Delany
Tries: Atunaisa Moli, Sevu Reece, Pita Ahki, Laglan McWhannell, Loni Uhila
Cons: Sevu Reece, Pita Ahki
Pen: Pita Ahki
Otago 43-19 Southland
Tries: Mitchell Scott, Sio Tomkinson, Jona Nareki, Tei Walden, Latu Vaeno, Jonah Aoina
Cons: Josh Ioane 5
Pen: Josh Ioane
Tries: Lewis Ormond 2, James Schrader
Cons: Scott Eade, Greg Dyer
Counties Manukau 52-30 Tasman
Tries: Joe Royal, Nigel Ah Wong 2, Orbyn Leger, Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion), Tim Nanai-Williams, Sam Henwood, Baden Kerr
Cons: Stephen Donald 2, Luteru Laulala 2, Jimmy Tupou
Tries: Tim O'Malley, Ethan Blackadder, Levi Aumua, Alex Nankivell
Cons: Tim O'Malley 2
Pens: Tim O'Malley 2
North Harbour 64-33 Taranaki
Tries: Bryn Hall, Tevita Li 5, Shaun Stephenson, Matt Duffie, James Parsons, Matt Vaega
Cons: Ben Volavola 5, Todd Doolan 2
Tries: Declan O'Donnell, Jared Proffit, Clarahn Matoe 2, Adrian Wyrill
Cons: Clarahn Matoe 4
Hawkes' Bay 36-31 Manawatu
Tries: Gareth Evans, Brad Weber, Mason Emerson 2, Richard Buckman, Jonah Lowe
Cons: Ihaia West 3
Tries: Lewis Marshall, Tim Cadwallader, Jason Emery, Jade Te Ruru
Cons: Jade Te Ruru 3, Jason Emery
Pen: Jade Te Ruru
Team of the Week - Round Nine:
15 - Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau):
Back to his best and still getting better with each game, Nanai-Williams' silky skills showed what could have been for the Steelers.
Bubbling Under: Shaun Stephenson (North Harbour)
14 - Monty Ioane (Bay Of Plenty):
Yet another Ioane that is having a fabulous season, Monty tore apart Waikato and was integral in helping the Steamers earn a home semi-final.
Bubbling Under: Waisake Naholo (Taranaki)
13 - Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki):
Tamanivalu had one of the best games of any centre this season against Manawatu, setting up two tries and scoring two more, while breaking the line and offloading countless times. Special mention to Rene Ranger (Northland) and Jonah Lowe (Hawkes' Bay).
Bubbling Under: Nigel Ah Wong (Counties Manukau)
12 - Jack Goodhue (Northland):
Kept the backline defence sturdy along with his centre partner, and created space with his distribution. Goodhue is a worthy winner of the Duane Monkley Medal. Special mention to Charlie Ngatai (Taranaki) for a magnificent second half effort against Manawatu.
Bubbling Under: Tei Walden (Otago)
11 - Tevita Li (North Harbour):
With an astonishing 5-try bag and 243 metres carried against Taranaki, Tevita Li wins the Player of the Round award by a landslide!
Bubbling Under: Joe Ravouvou (Auckland)
10 - Josh Ioane (Otago):
It may have only been Southland, but Ioane directed his team around like a seasoned-pro, while adding the vitality of youth to his dancing runs.
Bubbling Under: Richie Mo'unga (Canterbury)
9 - Brad Weber (Hawkes' Bay):
Weber saved his best for last and although it was an ultimately disappointing year for the Magpies, he will be in good spirits for the next Super Rugby season. Special mention to Jamie Booth (Manawatu) and Jack Stratton (Canterbury) for their intensity off the bench.
Bubbling Under: Finlay Christie (Tasman)
8 - Toa Halafihi (Taranaki):
It is quite amazing that Halafihi isn't close to winning the player of the season. He put in another workman-like showing to get the Bulls on the front foot against Manawatu. Special mention to Brad Shields (Wellington) and Pete Samu (Tasman).
Bubbling Under: Sam Henwood (Counties Manukau)
7 - Dillon Hunt (Otago):
Hunt put in yet another freakish performance on and off the ball, with 13 tackles, none missed, a breakdown steal, a line-out steal, a great clean break and 3 defenders beaten for a running total of 59 metres. Special mention to Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki) for his three breakdown pilfers and Foto Lokotui (Counties Manukau) for his barging carries.
Bubbling Under: Vernon Fredericks (Tasman)
6 - Tom Sanders (Canterbury):
Sanders does so much of the unseen hard work that he can sometimes be overlooked. Not so against Auckland as he broke their tight forwards apart and made large gains down the centre.
Bubbling Under: Taleni Seu (Auckland)
5 - Jarrad Hoeata (North Harbour):
A strong and accurate performance from the experienced campaigner. Hoeata didn't put a foot wrong and sometimes that's exactly what you need from your tight five.
Bubbling Under: Josh Dickson (Otago)
4 - Sam Lousi (Wellington):
The Hurricanes' regular has had a quiet season so far, but he showed all his skills against Northland, with a bevy of offloads, two breakdown steals and some strong carries in tight.
Bubbling Under: Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau)
3 - Alex Fidow (Wellington):
Fidow added another try to his tally, along with an all-round fantastic performance on defence with 10 tackles, none missed and a breakdown steal.
Bubbling Under: Atu Moli (Waikato)
2 - Nathan Vella (Canterbury):
It wasn't a strong round for hookers, and Vella was head and shoulders above his competitors, with some excellent scrummaging and bustling runs. Special mention to super-sub Asafo Aumua (Wellington) who upped the intensity significantly.
Bubbling Under: Ash Dixon (Hawkes' Bay)
1 - Craig Millar (Otago):
Completely dismantled Southland's scrum efforts, and very busy on defence with 11 tackles.
Bubbling Under: Mitchell Graham (Taranaki)
Team of the week - Round Eight: 15 Marty McKenzie (Taranaki), 14 Declan O’Donnell, 13 Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 Joe Webber (Bay Of Plenty), 10 Mitch Hunt (Tasman), 9 Billy Guyton (Tasman), 8 Jordan Taufua (Tasman), 7 Lachlan Boshier (Taranaki), 6 Tom Sanders (Canterbury), 5 Jackson Hemopo (Manawatu), 4 Chris Middleton (Wellington), 3 Atu Moli (Waikato), 2 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Aiden Ross (Bay Of Plenty).
Team of the week - Round Seven: 15 George Bridge (Canterbury), 14 Matt Duffie (North Harbour), 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Wellington), 12 Jack Goodhue (Northland), 11 Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki), 10 Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), 9 Sam Nock (Northland), 8 Akira Ioane (Auckland), 7 Du'Plessis Kirifi (Wellington), 6 Tom Sanders (Canterbury), 5 Will Mangos (Wellington), 4 Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau), 3 Alex Fidow (Wellington), 2 Ash Dixon (Hawkes’ Bay), 1 Alex Hodgman (Canterbury).
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