TEAM OF THE WEEK: Exciting semifinals ahead
NPC SPOTLIGHT: Rugby365 Columnist Richard Neal in his weekly wrap, looks at the final week of round robin matches in New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
Throughout the season every Premiership team except Hawkes' Bay held a top four spot at some point in the rounds.
Only two positions were guaranteed, Canterbury were certain to top the table and Hawkes' Bay were dropping down a division.
In the Championship division, Otago held onto first with some help from Waikato, while Bay of Plenty pipped Manawatu into fourth by demoralising their bay namesakes.
Tasman and North Harbour were the final teams to have short turnaround fixtures and they took advantage, both sneaking into third on their respective tables. Their first match was against one another and the match was tied for most of the match, including the end.
North Harbour were greatly aided by referee Kane McBride who yellow-carded both Kieran Fonotia and Ethan Blackadder in the second half. Fonotia was carded for a punch that wasn't, only 6 minutes after replacing the injured David Havili.
Harbour immediately took advantage of the backline numbers with Matt McGahan breaking through Fonotia's channel, then Matt Vaega scoring a soft try in the midfield.
Neither team wanted a mere draw and for an incredible 3 minutes after the hooter, both teams ran the ball. There were 5 turnovers in that time, which ended in a 51m penalty to Marty Banks which hit the upright. Play continued for another two phases before a knock on finally ended play for good at 27-27.
Auckland had a difficult time staying in the playoff spots when they visited Taranaki who sat second on the table.
There were several game-changing moments: Declan O'Donnell's run leading to Marty McKenzie's try and a huge momentum shift; Scrafton's yellow card for repeated infringements inside Auckland's 22; O'Donnell's accidental high shot that led to his sin-binning and a penalty try; and Taranaki's superb mauling and scrummaging leading to the final try in referee's time, 35-32.
Otago solidified top spot in division two with a hard-fought victory over Manawatu in Palmerston North.
Otago raced out to a 10-point lead with tries to Tony Ensor and Matt Faddes and never looked like relinquishing their lead. Aaron Cruden returned from injury to start the second half and Manawatu immediately looked more settled, winning the second half with a late try to Jamie Booth. But they couldn't overhaul the visitors, going down to Otago 14-21.
Counties got a taste of victory over Canterbury, who had rested several key players, while the Steelers brought back several veterans for the must-win clash.
Canterbury started with a long period of possession, but Counties Manukau held firm. A yellow card either way saw the game break apart in the middle section and Counties took advantage, scoring a try with only 14 on the park. Toni Pulu scored a brace, including a stunning individual try when nothing looked on.
Sam Vaka beat four defenders and offloaded for replacement Judd to score, capping off an excellent 33-21 victory.
Their semifinal will be against one another, except it will be played in Christchurch.
In Napier, Hawkes' Bay looked almost apathetic for much of their match. Resigned to the fact they would be returning to the second division next season they lagged behind an energetic Bay of Plenty.
Hawkes' Bay's discipline was terrible, giving away more than five times as many penalties. This resulted in a lot of territorial pressure which the Steamers turned into tries.
Bay of Plenty actually had something to play for and it wasn't until Henry Stowers was yellow carded that Hawkes' Bay showed much intent, scoring a late brace to Jonah Lowe.
But it was far too late and Bay of Plenty took out the match 24-26. Bay of Plenty will take on Otago in their semifinal in Dunedin.
Waikato showed the gap in talent between the divisions as they dispatched Wellington late to grab a playoff position for a fleeting 19 hours.
The capital had a lot of quality forward possession through Waikato indiscipline, but Jackson Garden-Bachop was unusually inaccurate from the tee letting Waikato stay in touch.
The experience of Irish international Isaac Boss and All Black Stephen Donald settled Waikato when they arrived on the scene early in the second half.
Donald and Damian McKenzie's short chips behind Wellington's rushing defence paid dividends as Waikato's pressure drove Wellington to give away penalties.
The Lion's scrumhalf Thomas Palu was yellow carded for a foolish kick after a penalty had been given and Waikato were rushing to take a quick tap.
The final score of the game was sealed with a brilliant half-break and offload from McKenzie to the Beaver. The old man lumbered off for another career-high moment which left the game 24-28 to Waikato.
Tasman were of a different class than Southland. The Nelson-based team accumulated tries steadily throughout this one-sided affair. There were numerous stand-out moments, including a great James Lowe offload for Alex Nankivell's try and the awesome power of the Tasman scrum at full flight, driving a normally strong Southland off their own ball.
Tasman ticked away and ended the game a whopping 56-0 up. Their semifinal is a replay of the 2014 final against Taranaki in New Plymouth.
North Harbour have made the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Harbour were decent enough to knock over Northland, but they will have to pick up their game when they come up against Wellington in their semifinal next week.
Harbour didn't ever look like losing against the wooden-spooners and an early yellow to Northland's inside centre Dan Hawkins made it easier for them.
They picked up three tries with him off the field and the game was over as a contest. The Stags hit back late with a few consolation tries but they couldn't make up the deficit, going down 28-44 at home.
Score and scorers:
North Harbour 27-27 Tasman
Tries: Matt McGahan, Matt Vaega, Adrian Smith
Cons: Bryn Gatland 3
Pens: Bryn Gatland 2
Tries: David Havili, Andrew Makalio, Shannon Frizell
Cons: Marty Banks 3
Pens: Marty Banks 2
Taranaki 35-32 Auckland
Tries: Marty McKenzie, Seta Tamanivalu, Rhys Marshall, Ben Matwijow, Toa Halafihi
Cons: Marty McKenzie 2
Pens: Marty McKenzie 2
Tries: Melani Nanai, Rieko Ioane 2, Penalty Try
Cons: Simon Hickey 3
Pens: Simon Hickey 2
Manawatu 14-21 Otago
Tries: Ngani Laumape, Jamie Booth
Cons: Otere Black 2
Tries: Tony Ensor, Matt Faddes, Adam Knight
Pens: Scott Eade, Fletcher Smith
Counties Manukau 33-21 Canterbury
Tries: Toni Pulu 2, Cardiff Vaega, Pauliasi Manu, Richard Judd
Cons: Piers Francis, Luteru Laulala 3
Tries: Dan Lienert-Brown, Nathan Earle
Con: Jordie Barrett
Pens: Jordie Barrett 3
Hawkes' Bay 24-26 Bay of Plenty
Tries: Jonah Lowe 2, Brad Weber
Cons: Ihaia West 3
Pen: Ihaia West
Bay of Plenty:
Tries: Lalakai Foketi, Te Aihe Toma, Solomona Sakalia, Penalty Try
Cons: Dan Hollinshead 3
Wellington 24-28 Waikato
Tries: Reg Goodes, Vaea Fifita, Hoani Matenga, Asafo Aumua
Cons: Jackson Garden-Bachop 2
Tries: Sevu Reece, Jordan Manihera, Adam Burn, Stephen Donald
Cons: Damian McKenzie 4
Tasman 56-0 Southland
Tries: Caleb Makene, Viliami Lolohea, James Lowe, Andrew Makalio, Alex Ainley, Pete Samu, Jesse MacDonald, Alex Nankivell
Cons: Mitch Hunt 5, Tim O'Mally 3
Northland 28-44 North Harbour
Tries: Solomona Alaimalo, Epineri Uluiviti, Ross Wright, Waisea Lawebuka
Cons: Peter Breen 4
Tries: Matt Duffie 2, Michael Little, Tevita Li, Conor Collett, Karl Tuinukuafe
Cons: Bryn Gatland 3, Matt McGahan
Pens: Bryn Gatland 2
Team of the Week - Round Nine:
15 - Melani Nanai (Auckland):
Even in a losing team he manages to shine brightly.
Bubbling Under: Ambrose Curtis (Manawatu)
14 - Declan O'Donnell (Taranaki):
Yellow card aside, he had a tremendous game, breaking Auckland apart at every opportunity.
Bubbling Under: Iliesa Ratuva (Waikato)
13 - Sam Vaka (Counties Manukau):
Put the final nail in Canterbury's coffin with his powerful run through their lines.
Bubbling Under: Rieko Ioane (Auckland)
12 - Michael Little (North Harbour):
Made an incredible 102 running metres from inside centre, picking up a try. He also made all his tackles stick.
Bubbling Under: David Havili (Tasman)
11 - James Lowe (Tasman):
Lowe has just returned from a long-term injury and it looks like he was never away. He has pace and power but his impossible offloads are his point of difference from every other winger in world rugby.
Bubbling Under: Tevita Li (North Harbour)
10 - Damian McKenzie (Waikato):
The boy-wonder makes things happen. McKenzie directly assisted in 3 of his team's 4 tries, including an offload out of a double tackle and a cross kick for his winger.
Bubbling Under: Mitch Hunt (Tasman)
9 - Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau):
Pulu is a special talent and Counties will look to him as Captain in the week or weeks to come. Special mention to Te Aihe Toma (Bay of Plenty) who helped lead his team to the playoffs.
Bubbling Under: Brad Weber (Hawkes' Bay)
8 - Naulia Dawai (Otago):
A very underrated part of Otago's arsenal, Dawai has picked up 5 tries this season, but it was his 22 tackles that won him this spot this week.
Bubbling Under: Joe Tupe (Bay of Plenty)
7 - Jordan Taufua (Counties Manukau):
Taufua was on form this week, making big gains through a tough defence, 11m/carry against Canterbuty is nothing to be sneezed at.
Bubbling Under: Adam Burn (Waikato)
6 - Tom Sanders (Canterbury):
Colonel Sanders never slows down, putting in a mountain of work, including a perfect 100% tackle rate with 12 tackles and he beat 4 defenders from 5 carries.
Bubbling Under: Vaea Fifita (Wellington)
5 - Blair Tweed (Otago):
Another big defensive performance from Tweed, with 23 tackles.
Bubbling Under: Christopher Vui (North Harbour)
4 - Jacob Skeen (Waikato):
Skeen had his best game of the season, with 7 line-out takes, including a steal, and 20 devastating tackles.
Bubbling Under: Mark Reddish (Wellington)
3 - Ross Geldenhuys (Tasman):
Dominated Southland at scrum time, the big boy pushed them round like they were children.
Bubbling Under: Marcell Renata (Auckland)
2 - Andrew Makalio (Tasman):
Makalio picked up a try in each game and the giant hooker with the gigantic hair is a body shifter of the first order.
Bubbling Under: Hika Elliot (Counties Manukau)
1 - Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau):
Welcome back to starting rugby Pauli! 12 carries, a try, 6 tackles and no mistakes whatsoever. There is a reason he was called in to the World Cup squad as cover.
Bubbling Under: Kane Hames (Tasman)
Team of the week - Round Eight: 15 Jordan Trainor (Waikato), 14 Monty Ioane (Bay of Plenty), 13 Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki), 12 David Havili (Tasman), 11 George Bridge (Canterbury), 10 Richie Mo'unga (Canterbury), 9 Jamie Booth (Manawatu), 8 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Manawatu), 7 Shane Christie (Tasman), 6 Antonio Kirikiri (Manawatu), 5 Quinten Strange (Tasman), 4 Scott Barrett (Canterbury), 3 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi (Bay of Plenty), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Joe Walsh (Southland)
Team of the week - Round Seven: 15 Jordan Trainor (Waikato), 14 Jason Woodward (Wellington), 13 Rieko Ioane (Auckland), 12 Jordie Barrett (Canterbury), 11 Tevita Li (North Harbour), 10 Simon Hickey (Auckland), 9 Jack Stratton (Canterbury), 8 Luke Whitelock (Canterbury), 7 Akira Ioane (Auckland), 6 Taleni Seu (Auckland), 5 Liaki Moli (Auckland), 4 Scott Scrafton (Auckland), 3 Ben May (Hawkes' Bay), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Tolu Fahamokioa (Hawkes' Bay)
Team of the week - Round Six: 15 Junior Ngaluafe (Southland), 14 Jonah Lowe (Hawkes' Bay), 13 Rieko Ioane (Auckland), 12 David Havili (Tasman), 11 Tevita Li (North Harbour), 10 Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Peter Samu (Tasman), 7 Elliot Dixon (Southland), 6 Christopher Vui (North Harbour), 5 Leighton Price (Taranaki), 4 David McDuling (Canterbury), 3 Kalolo Tuiloma (Counties Manukau), 2 Asafo Aumua (Wellington), 1 Kane Hames (Tasman)
Team of the week - Round Five: 15 Junior Ngaluafe (Southland), 14 Tima Fainga'anuku (Tasman), 13 Matt Vaega (North Harbour), 12 Tiaan Falcon (Hawkes' Bay), 11 Sevu Reece (Waikato), 10 Marty Banks (Tasman), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Paul Grant (Otago), 7 Kara Pryor (Northland), 6 Harrison Brewer (Manawatu), 5 Jackson Hemopo (Manawatu), 4 Geoffrey Cridge (Hawkes' Bay), 3 Sosefo Kautai (Waikato), 2 Hame Faiva (Waikato), 1 Mitchell Graham (Taranaki)
Team of the week - Round Four: 15 Jordan Trainor (Waikato), 14 Mitchell Scott (Otago), 13 Rieko Ioane (Auckland), 12 Rob Thompson (Canterbury), 11 George Bridge (Canterbury), 10 Damian McKenzie (Waikato), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Luke Whitelock (Canterbury), 7 Akira Ioane (Auckland), 6 Jesse Parete (Bay of Plenty), 5 Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), 4 Scott Barrett (Canterbury), 3 Ben May (Hawkes' Bay), 2 Rhys Marshall (Taranaki), 1 Loni Uhila (Waikato)
Team of the week - Round Three: 15 Michael Collins (Otago), 14 Beaudein Waaka (Taranaki), 13 Rieko Ioane (Auckland), 12 Ryan Crotty (Canterbury), 11 Wes Goosen (Wellington), 10 Fletcher Smith (Otago), 9 Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), 8 Naulia Dawai (Otago), 7 Akira Ioane (Auckland), 6 Pete Samu (Tasman), 5 Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), 4 Josh Goodhue (Northland), 3 Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury), 2 Greg Pleasants-Tate (Auckland), 1 Loni Uhila (Waikato)
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