Team of the Week: Speeding up the game
NPC SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal, in his weekly wrap, looks at Round Three of the National Provincial Championship in New Zealand.
With referees becoming more consistent in their breakdown rulings and only bound players allowed to use their feet, the ruck areas cleared up significantly this week.
Although penalties are still frequently given away by certain teams, the speed of play seems notably quicker and teams with more adaptable loose forwards are capitalising on the new laws.
The first of the short turnaround games happened this week, with Northland flying down to Dunedin on Wednesday and back up to Whangarei to greet Canterbury just three days later.
While Otago had to travel to Tauranga Domain to face Bay of Plenty on Sunday.
Northland are constantly improving, however, not enough to bring down a resolute Otago.
The two sides were very similar across the park, except for kicking from hand. The Otago flyhalf, Fletcher Smith, consistently put Northland on the back foot and, combined with his swift distribution, he helped lead his side to a 33-28 victory.
Hawkes' Bay have not had a good start to their Premiership campaign and when Counties Manukau came to visit, it did not improve. The huge Counties forwards beat up on the Magpies all night and with Augustine Pulu returning to the form that saw him become an All Black in 2014, there was little chance of anything but a large Counties win, 48-20.
Auckland welcomed back four All Blacks' squad members to face Southland, who only had Lima Sopoaga rejoin the fold.
The first half was characterised by bone-jarring defence, with the score ticking over in multiples of three.
However, the second half was a very different story. Rieko Ioane scored the first try after an intercept from a mistimed Sopoaga pass. Then in the 55th minute, Southland inside centre Kieran Moffat was yellow-carded for repeated breakdown infringements.
Just four minutes later, Sopoaga affected a perfect Rugby Championship turnover, which is now illegal in the NPC. So, he spent 10 minutes on the sidelines, too. But it was after those two had returned to the field that the floodgates really opened and Auckland ran away with the game, 51-16.
In what should have been the game of the round, neither Tasman nor Taranaki were at the level they had risen to when they competed for the 2014 title.
The excellent defence, but also disappointing handling skills, led to a lack of continuity in the first half, with only a solitary try by returning All Black Seta Tamanivalu. The second half was not much better, although a close ending, where Tasman pulled away to a 25-20 victory, began to make up for the poor start.
Unable to cross the line, Wellington won a multitude of regular kickable penalties. Their opponents, North Harbour, showed skills and determination that they have lacked in recent years. Several brilliant counter-attacks by fullback Matt Duffie (best known for being sent flying by Nemani Nadolo during Super Rugby) kept North Harbour on attack and they scored two tries to none. However, the breakdown and offside penalties piled up and Wellington ended up victors, 21-17.
Top played bottom in Saturday's final match and few would have faulted Northland for forfeiting.
However, the Northland Taniwha turned up to their third match in just eight days and put in a brave performance, with Northland lock Josh Goodhue becoming just the second forward ever to score a hat-trick in an NPC game (Jeremy Thrush being the first).
But Canterbury did what everyone expected them to do and started with a bang, crossing the line 3 times in just the first 7 minutes. From there, they steamrolled the outclassed Taniwhas picking up eight tries in total on their way to winning 52-34.
In Sunday's games, both losing teams will regret their decisions to go for line-outs rather than take easy three-pointers. Bay of Plenty turned down a penalty right on the stroke of half time that may have won them the contest. While Manawatu missed out on a certain bonus point three minutes from time to go for a line-out drive and the outside possibility of a win.
Bay of Plenty returned home after two loses to Premiership sides to face their first Championship opponent, the undefeated Otago. Bay of Plenty attempted to play enterprising rugby, but the handling errors mounted and in the end Otago were able to take the victory, 33-32.
In torrential rain, Waikato lined up their second Ranfurly Shield defence, against the unbeaten Manawatu.
In such conditions it's the forward pack that makes the biggest impact that wins the game. Waikato bossed the breakdown winning seven turnovers, bullied the Turbos' scrum and drove tacklers back at the gain line to grab the win, 19-10 and deny Manawatu a single bonus point.
Score and scorers:
Otago 33-28 Northland
Tries:Naulia Dawai, Jack Wilson 2, Matt Faddes
Cons: Fletcher Smith, Scott Eade
Pen: Fletcher Smith 3
Tries:Matt Matich, Shane Neville, Jone Macilai-Tori
Cons: Peter Breen 2
Pen: Peter Breen 3
Hawkes' Bay 20-48 Counties Manukau
Tries:Robbie Fruean, Ryan Tongia
Cons: Ihaia West 2
Pen: Ihaia West 2
Tries:Luteru Laulala, Sam Vaka, Jordan Taufua 2, Sione Fifita
Cons: Piers Francis 4
Pen: Piers Francis 4
DG: Piers Francis
Southland 16-51 Auckland
Con: Lima Sopoaga
Pen: Lima Sopoaga 3
Tries:Rieko Ioane 2, Joe Ravouvou, Patrick Tuipulotu, Pryor Collier, Kurt Ecklund
Cons: Simon Hickey 5, Jono Hickey
Pen: Simon Hickey 3
Tasman 25-20 Taranaki
Con: Marty Banks
Pen: Marty Banks 6
Tries:Seta Tamanivalu, Beaudein Waaka
Cons: Marty McKenzie 2
Pen: Marty McKenzie 2
Wellington 21-17 North Harbour
Pens:Jackson Garden-Bachop 7
Tries:Matt McGahan, Brandon Nansen
Cons: Matt Vaega 2
Pen: Matt Vaega
Northland 34-52 Canterbury
Tries:Josh Goodhue 3, Howard Sililoto
Cons: Dan Hawkins 4
Pen: Dan Hawkins 2
Tries:Marshall Suckling 2, George Bridge 2, Johnny McNicholl, Jack Goodhue, Matt Todd, Jordie Barrett
Cons: Ben Volavola 2, Richie Mo'unga
Pen: Richie Mo'unga, Jordie Barrett
Bay of Plenty 32-33 Otago
Bay of Plenty:
Tries:Lalakai Foketi 3, Siegfried Fisiihoi
Cons: Kelly Haimona 3
Pen: Kelly Haimona 2
Tries:Michael Collins, Mitchell Scott, Naulia Dawai, Lee Allan
Cons: Scott Eade 2
Pen: Fletcher Smith 2
DG: Scott Eade
Waikato 19-10 Manawatu
Con: Damian McKenzie
Pen: Damian McKenzie 4
Con: Otere Black
Pen: Otere Black
Team of the Week - Round Three:
15 - Michael Collins (Otago):
Got highly involved in both his matches this week, with a try and assist in one and an assist in the other. He made a total of 26 carries for 169 metres.
Bubbling Under: Johnny McNicholl (Canterbury)
14 - Beaudein Waaka (Taranaki):
In a game with few opportunities, Waaka took his. He broke 5 tackles on his way to 130 metres run.
Bubbling Under: Marshall Suckling (Canterbury)
13 - Rieko Ioane (Auckland):
The younger Ioane brother showed exactly why he is so highly regarded by the All Blacks' selectors. He beat an incredible 12 defenders and picked up a brace.
Bubbling Under: Jonah Lowe (Hawkes' Bay)
12 - Ryan Crotty (Canterbury):
Welcome back to the NPC, Ryan. He showed his class time and again, setting up his outsides, shutting down the opposition and even scooping a turnover.
Bubbling Under: Jordan Hyland (Northland)
11 - Wes Goosen (Wellington):
Hugely talented, this hard-working winger just does not make mistakes. He didn't drop a ball, miss a tackle or give away a penalty all match. Special mention to George Bridge of Canterbury for getting a double on debut.
Bubbling Under: Jack Wilson (Otago)
10 - Fletcher Smith (Otago):
There were a variety of outstanding performances at flyhalf this week. Including Sam Christie's (Waikato) kicking from hand and tackling, Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington) scoring all of his team's points, and Marty Banks' (Tasman) perfect goal kicking. But the up-and-coming Highlander showed why there are such big expectations surrounding him with an astute kicking game, vision for space and a pass that regularly sets up his speedy outsides.
Bubbling Under: Piers Francis (Counties Manukau)
9 - Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau):
The Blues made a great acquisition when they picked up the Steelers' tyro. His decision-making, ball carrying and distribution were spot on and were key in three of his sides' five tries, making him Player of the Round.
Bubbling Under: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Taranaki)
8 - Naulia Dawai (Otago):
Showed his versatility by playing at openside against the Taniwha, where he scored an outstanding try from an appalling cross-kick, but he really stood out at the back of the scrum against the Steamers with a perfect defensive record, 15 carries and a try.
Bubbling Under: So'otala Fa'aso'o (Counties Manukau)
7 - Akira Ioane (Auckland):
With the disappointment of the Rio Olympics still fresh, the elder Ioane took his frustration out on Southland, smashing their defensive lines, breaking 11 tackles and racking up a round-high of 116 metres for a forward.
Bubbling Under: Jordan Taufua (Counties Manukau)
6 - Pete Samu (Tasman):
One of the only stand-outs in a surprisingly static Tasman pack, Samu showed power in each tackle and crossed the gain line on every carry.
Bubbling Under: Taleni Seu (Auckland)
5 - Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland):
The reserve All Black adapted beautifully to the new laws, pilfering a ball early. But it was his all-round excellence that won him this spot, with a line-out steal topping off his high work rate on both offence and defence.
Bubbling Under: Mark Abbott (Hawkes' Bay)
4 - Josh Goodhue (Northland):
A superb hat-trick kept Northland in the game against Canterbury, but it wasn't just his finishing that set him apart, he also made 12 tackles without missing one and grabbed a breakdown turnover.
Bubbling Under: Luke Romano (Canterbury)
3 - Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury):
It's hard to remember a more dominant scrum than this Canterbury pack. This week they won 3 more against the head. Add to that Tokolahi's determined defence and you have an excellent tighthead.
Bubbling Under: Kalolo Tuiloma (Counties Manukau)
2 - Greg Pleasants-Tate (Auckland):
Excellent line-out throwing, adept breakdown work, strong defence and powerful running ... the total package hooker.
Bubbling Under: Andrew Makalio (Tasman)
1 - Loni Uhila (Waikato):
The ex-heavyweight boxer hit like a hurricane, destroying the Manawatu scrum and defensive lines alike.
Bubbling Under: Mitchell Graham (Taranaki)
Team of the week - Round Two: 15 Jason Emery (Manawatu), 14 Newton Tudreu (Manawatu), 13 Matt Proctor (Wellington), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 Tevita Li (North Harbour), 10 Fletcher Smith (Otago), 9 Te Aihe Toma (Bay of Plenty), 8 Steven Luatua (Auckland), 7 James Lentjes (Otago), 6 Bill Fukofuka (Southland), 5 Dominic Bird (Canterbury), 4 Thomas Franklin (Otago), 3 Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Peni Ravai (Southland)
Team of the week - Round One: 15 Solomona Alaimalo (Northland), 14 Johnny McNicholl (Canterbury), 13 Matt Vaega (North Harbour), 12 Tei Walden (Otago), 11 Wes Goosen (Wellington), 10 Damian McKenzie (Waikato), 9 Finlay Christie (Tasman), 8 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Manawatu), Tony Lamborn (Hawkes' Bay), 6 Pete Samu (Tasman), 5 Brian Alainu'uese (Waikato), 4 Scott Barrett (Canterbury), 3 Michael Kainga (Taranaki), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Nic Mayhew (North Harbour).
By Richard Neal