TEAM OF THE WEEK: Finals lock and loaded
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal looks at semifinal action of New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
The playoffs are already here after only nine weeks of regular season.
Taranaki took out the minor premiership by a single point while Wellington dominated the Championship, winning by a massive 18 points.
In the semifinals there were two provinces from the champion Crusaders side, two each for the Blues and the Chiefs and one with allegiances to the Highlanders and Hurricanes.
Wellington V Northland
Wellington were doing well already but their biggest game was their thrashing of current champions, Canterbury in round 5.
Northland had a fantastic season, turning around their bottom of the table finishes of the last two years, to manage to sneak into fourth.
Their turning point this year was round 9’s loss to Wellington which gave the three teams below them a chance to leapfrog them into the semis, which two teams took.
Bouncing back from last week’s loss to the same team, Northland started strongly.
Wellington went ahead through the boot of Jackson Garden-Bachop, but exceptional tries to Solomona Alaimalo and Jordan Hyland put the Taniwhas in the driving seat.
However, the visitors’ defence and discipline let them down, with Kara Pryor spending 10 minutes on the sideline for a foolish offside when the Lions were hard on attack.
With a Northland flank in the bin, the capital took control, going 30-14 up by half-time after powerful runs by Julian Savea and some elusive carries from Wes Goosen.
Another devastating run by Savea led to Tolu Fahamokioa ploughing over a try to extend the side’s lead.
Since scoring their second try, Northland’s season-long weapons, the breakdown and their centre pairing, were nullified by a very confrontational Wellington defence.
In the final quarter, trailing by 21, Northland became desperate and their handling began failing them.
This, combined with Wellington’s accuracy, saw Garden-Bachop make a long carry. His offload went to ground, but replacement Regan Verney snatched it up and dived over for the Lion’s fifth try.
Sam Nock picked up Northland’s third, but it was Wellington that got the final say, Goosen going in for a brace off another excellent Savea offload to make it 49-21.
Wellington sent a strong message to their potential final opponents.
Bay Of Plenty V Otago
The Bay showed their potential very early in the season, with a huge win in the Battle of the Bays and then a solid win over Championship rivals Manawatu.
The pivotal moment in their season came in the final round, when they beat Premiership side Waikato in their Chiefs’ derby.
Otago have been in the Championship playoffs 7 of the last 8 years (since the divisional split in 2011).
Their turning point was in week 7, when they lost to Northland in the first of their fast-turnaround matches. This was followed by losses to Wellington and Bay Of Plenty, which saw them squeak into the playoffs due to Manawatu’s round 9 losses.
Bay Of Plenty took early control with Joe Webber and Hugh Blake both making breaks.
Monty Ioane came off his wing and set up Sevens’ star Webber, who stepped one and went over in the tackle of two more to score the Steamers’ first try.
It was excellent to hear commentator Ian Jones correcting co-comentator Willie Lose, who regularly spouts inaccuracies that an unsuspecting audience takes as fact.
Otago tried to fling the ball around in their own 22, but a handling error let Lalakai Foketi run in an easy 7-pointer.
After a long period of attack from the kick-off, Otago went through a multitude of pick ‘n goes.
The TMO again had a lot of work to do, after Sam Anderson-Heather went over for the visitors.
The Steamers’ back three linked beautifully to get 5 metres out. Foketi picked up and forced his way over for a brace to make it 22-11 right on half time.
Early in the second stanza, Hugh Blake got a yellow card after a team warning and a breakdown offside.
Otago grabbed the momentum with a strong scrum and a neat short pass followed by a drive by #8 Sione Teu.
Webber made another great carry to score a one-man try and extend the lead.
A fantastic Delany kick created good field position for a line-out drive and a try for Henry Stowers.
Super-sub Vilimoni Koroi hit back with a solo-try of his own, beating 4 defenders and going in at the corner.
The fantastic Fletcher Smith conversion brought the game within nine.
However, Otago momentum was short-lived as BoP fullback Chase Tiatia brought them close before Terrence Hepetema dived over from close.
Tei Walden strolled through a giant gap to dot down but it was too late.
The Steamers got a penalty try on the stroke of fulltime, but it didn’t matter as they had already won.
Canterbury V North Harbour
The home team had won eight out of the last nine titles and looked like sweeping up another early this season.
A big loss to Wellington at the end of week 5 made punters look again and then Canterbury’s turning point was a large loss to Taranaki, who took home the coveted Ranfurly Shield in week 8.
North Harbour have been building well over the last two seasons and with an easy start to this campaign looked very strong heading into the halfway mark.
However, their loss to Canterbury in week 6 followed up by tiny wins over lowly Hawkes’ Bay and Waikato seriously dented their Premiership-winning accreditation.
Harbour was missing their influential Bryns to injury, so Canterbury sent their #10 Mo’unga to Brisbane to join the All Blacks and even up the playing field slightly.
Other than their All Blacks, Canterbury had their top 23 all available, including captain Luke Whitelock and centre Tim Bateman recently back from injury.
The northerners had the first chance after a fantastic Matt Duffie double skip pass set Shaun Stephenson away, but he couldn’t outrun the cover defence.
But they still got the first points after Mitchell Drummond and Billy Harmon both went offside. Volavola knocked over the easy penalty.
A rare mistake from George Bridge meant Harbour had an attacking line-out just outside Canterbury’s 22.
Several standard phases had the visitors at a standstill until a nifty inside pass by Glenn Preston gave Volavola a tiny gap. It was all the Fijian needed and he swept by 3 defenders to in behind the posts.
Harbour’s defence seemed resolute, forcing mistakes from their hosts. They cleared well, but the pressure built for 10 minutes and Drummond finally went over from a sniping run.
Rob Thompson, Bridge and Drummond made some good darts, pulling Harbour’s defences around, but again the Hibiscus held firm.
Braydon Ennor made a long run on the left wing, Drummond signalled for a centring kick, which Bridge beat him to, to put Canterbury up 17-10.
Harbour started the second-half the same as the 1st, with effective runs by Tamaieta, Li, Groundwater, Vaega and finished by Chris Eves, who drew the scores level.
Canterbury stole the ball from their own kick-off and Billy Harmon got his name in the scorebook while seagulling on attack.
Duffie skipped away and into a huge clearing but an ankle tap made him offload, which went astray.
However, Murphy Taramai powered over from the scrum and Volavola’s conversion brought them within one score of a famous victory, only 10 minutes from time.
Then Josh McKay raced through the centres only to be ankle-tapped just short. Two phases later Tim Bateman broke hearts as he dotted down.
Canterbury then sealed the game by mauling Harbour to death, winning 35-24.
Taranaki V Tasman
It was a repeat of the famously entertaining 2014 Premiership final, with Tasman turning up at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth.
Both sides had been building the whole season, with Taranaki sneaking past Waikato first up and then losing to Wellington, and Tasman being nilled by Canterbury and then losing to Manawatu.
Taranaki ended the season top after they beat Canterbury and Manawatu, but lost momentum going into the playoffs after fielding a second-string side in their final match and being convincingly beaten by North Harbour.
Tasman’s pivotal moment this year was in round 4 when they pipped the otherwise unbeaten Wellington. Following that, they beat Otago, Auckland and North Harbour to solidify their top four spot.
Taranaki and Tasman were well-matched, the lead changing hands an amazing six times.
The home team finishing chances but the visitors had better discipline and that was telling right through the match.
Mitch Hunt drew ahead with three penalties, although he missed a sitter in the second minute.
Declan O’Donnell scored the first try after two excellent passes by Stephen Perofeta and Marty McKenzie.
Wing Tima Fainga’anuku intercepted and raced ahead, but he was tracked down by Perofeta. He placed the ball and went again, rolling over in another Perofeta tackle to scrape the in-goal.
A second massive Bull’s scrum, gave Perofeta just enough time and space to put veteran Charlie Ngatai into a gap.
After the break, James Lowe used a fantastic angle to scythe through Taranaki’s midfield and offload. Hunt took a Will Jordan pass to bring his individual tally to 19.
Toa Halafihi drove the ball from the boot, with scrumhalf Tahuriorangi diving over to close the gap to three.
With momentum in their favour, the Bulls’ brick wall, Halafihi, drove deep into Makos’ territory.
Centre Sean Wainui drew and passed to Seta Tamanivalu who made no mistake in snatching the lead back for Taranaki.
One point behind and seven minutes left and Tamanivalu was sent off for a high tackle that was one too many for ref Nick Briant.
McKenzie was just wide with a later 55 metre penalty attempt.
Tasman attacked late and Player of the Round Mitch Hunt slammed it to the rafters to seal their spot in the final.
The finals line up with Wellington V Bay Of Plenty on Friday for the Championship title and promotion to Division 1.
On Saturday night, the two Crusaders provinces repeat the 2016 final, with Tasman travelling to Canterbury.
Score and scorers:
Wellington 49-21 Northland
Tries: Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Wes Goosen 2, Trent Renata, Tolu Fahamokioa, Regan Verney
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 5
Pens: Jackson Garden-Bachop 3
Tries: Jordan Hyland, Solomona Alaimalo, Sam Nock
Cons: Daniel Hawkins 2, Sam Nock
Bay of Plenty 48-32 Otago
Bay of Plenty:
Tries: Joe Webber 2, Lalakai Foketi 2, Henry Stowers, Terrence Hepetema, Penalty Try (Automatic Conversion)
Cons: Mike Delany 4
Pens: Mike Delany
Tries: Sam Anderson-Heather, Sione Teu, Villimoni Koroi, Tei Walden
Cons: Fletcher Smith 3
Pens: Josh Ioane 2
Canterbury 35-24 North Harbour
Tries: Mitchell Drummond, George Bridge, Billy Harmon, Tim Bateman
Cons: Brett Cameron 3
Pens: Brett Cameron 3
Tries:Ben Volavola, Chris Eves, Murphy Taramai
Cons: Ben Volavola 3
Pen: Ben Volavola
Taranaki 29-30 Tasman
Tries: Declan O’Donnell, Charlie Ngatai, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Seta Tamanivalu
Cons: Marty McKenzie 3
Pen: Marty McKenzie
Tries: Tima Fainga’anuku, Mitch Hunt
Con: Mitch Hunt
Pens: Mitch Hunt 6
Team of the Week - Semi-Finals:
15 - Will Jordan (Tasman):
A star of the future, the young Makos’ fullback sparked attack wherever he went and put the Taranaki defences on high alert the whole game, beating 6 defenders. Special mention to Solomona Alaimalo (Northland).
Bubbling Under: George Bridge (Canterbury)
14 - Monty Ioane (Bay Of Plenty):
Monty Ioane played a mistake-less match, which is oh-so important at this end of the season. He beat 5 defenders, came off his wing at the right times and made all 5 tackles stick, while his offloading game is top notch. Special mention to Declan O’Donnell (Taranaki) and Julian Savea (Wellington).
Bubbling Under: Matt Duffie (North Harbour)
13 - Wes Goosen (Wellington):
Goosen will surely be a regular starter for the Hurricanes come January. His elusive running has caused havoc all season and his out-and-out pace is great for finishing tries.
Bubbling Under: Matt Vaega (North Harbour)
12 - Rob Thompson (Canterbury):
Thompson is fantastically talented and with the amount of ball he gets, he is able to show off those skills.
Bubbling Under: Charlie Ngatai (Taranaki)
11 - Joe Webber (Bay Of Plenty):
The Steamers biggest weapons are all out wide and when they utilise them, they win games. Webber picked up a brace and threatened Otago’s defences often. Special mention to James Lowe (Tasman), who has one match left in NZ, and Braydon Ennor (Canterbury), who has his whole career ahead of him.
Bubbling Under: Tevita Li (North Harbour)
10 - Mitch Hunt (Tasman):
In a round filled with the best fly-halves in the competition, this position was packed with choices. Mitch Hunt won the Player of the Round for his distribution, kicking (apart from the first one), defence and general organisational skills. Fantastic play. Special mention to Ben Volavola (North Harbour), Mike Delany (Bay Of Plenty), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki) and replacement Fletcher Smith (Otago).
Bubbling Under: Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington)
9 - Mitchell Drummond (Canterbury):
It helps that he is at the back of a massively dominant pack, but Drummond is showing his distribution skills and putting his hand up for the vacating third All Blacks’ scrumhalf position.
Bubbling Under: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Taranaki)
8 - Toa Halafihi (Taranaki):
Halafihi has been a work-horse all season, culminating in yet another line-out-taking, breakdown-disrupting, tackle-busting, spine-crushing performance. Special mention to hard-working Murphy Taramai (North Harbour).
Bubbling Under: Luke Whitelock (Canterbury)
7 - Billy Harmon (Canterbury):
Four steals from North Harbour’s rucks wins this spot by itself, but he also put in some big hits and stole a try out wide.
Bubbling Under: Kara Pryor (Northland)
6 - Pita Sowakula (Taranaki):
Another big Bulls loosie, making metres and flattening backs. Sowakula capped a breakout year with a solid defensive showing, a well-timed pilfer and many barnstorming runs.
Bubbling Under: Brad Shields (Wellington)
5 - Dominic Bird (Canterbury):
A hugely dominant performance by the Canterbury pack in the second half, with the engine room having a big say in the set-piece performance.
Bubbling Under: Shannon Frizell (Tasman)
4 - Mitch Dunshea (Canterbury):
On top of his usual line-out work, Dunshea had a flawless night on defence, with 8 tackles and none missed.
Bubbling Under: Sam Lousi (Wellington)
3 - Alex Fidow (Wellington):
Tireless on attack and defence, Fidow is making a name for himself as large as his frame. 10 carries with 3 defenders beaten and 12 tackles, along with a tighthead win in the scrum.
Bubbling Under: Jeff Thwaites (Bay Of Plenty)
2 - Ben Funnell (Canterbury):
Another Cantabrian to put in the work this week. Funnell made 11 tackles, a clean break with ball in hand and was perfect at line-out time.
Bubbling Under: Asafo Aumua (Wellington)
1 - Craig Millar (Otago):
One of the only looseheads to make metres this week, carting the ball up 8 times, while also being perfect on defence.
Bubbling Under: Alex Hodgman (Canterbury)
Team of the week - Round Nine: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams (Counties Manukau), 14 Monty Ioane (Bay of Plenty), 13 Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki), 12 Jack Goodhue (Northland), 11 Tevita Li (North Harbour), 10 Josh Ioane (Otago), 9 Brad Weber (Hawkes' Bay), 8 Toa Halafihi (Taranaki), 7 Dillon Hunt (Otago), 6 Tom Sanders (Canterbury), 5 Jarrad Hoeata (North Harbour), 4 Sam Lousi (Wellington), 3 Alex Fidow (Wellington), 2 Nathan Vella (Canterbury), 1 Craig Millar (Otago).
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 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