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By Peter White
North Harbour 27 Waikato 36
QBE INSURANCE North Harbour pushed Waikato all the way but lacked the cutting edge to overcome their more experienced opponents in a rugged round six ITM Cup match-up at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday night.
Waikato proved too strong and dominated possession in the second spell to grind out a hard earned victory, while once again Harbour coach Craig Dowd was left to ponder what might have been but for some costly errors made by his inexperienced team.
The game was the 33rd meeting since 1985 between the former Chiefs’ partners and today’s win puts the Mooloo men up 20-11 head-to-head with two draws. It may be of little consolation for Harbour’s players and fans but after the game a very relieved Waikato coach Chris Gibbes said the win was “our toughest game of the season”.
Harbour flanker Matt Luamanu was an outstanding figures in the match and he started the game with one of the biggest hits of the season when he caught Waikato first five Trent Renata ball and all, but the plucky little player got straight to his feet.
Renata’s opposite Michael Harris, who had a blinder, set up the opening try with a scorching run through the Waikato defence, before he fed Luamanu steaming outside him. Jack Tarrant chimed in and barnstorming prop Ben Afeaki crashed over. Harris converted to give Harbour an early 7-0 lead.
A penalty from Renata closed the gap and then the Mooloo men went ahead when former All Blacks halfback Brendon Leonard finished off a slick backline move with Harbour caught short of numbers in the defensive line.
But Harbour replied immediately with a try from absolutely nothing to winger Alipate Fatafehi. The Tongan international collected a knock on from Waikato and beat three hapless defenders for a fine individual try. Harris converted splendidly from near touch and Harbour had the lead 14-10 after 19 minutes.
Renata’s kicked his second penalty from a ruck infringement and then missed the conversion to a try to winger Dwayne Sweeney after the Harbour defence was again cut open.
Harris kicked a simple penalty to close the gap to 18-17 as both teams struggled to take the kick offs and clear for territory. But sadly with Harbour having a good spell in possession, Luke McAlister missed a tackle on centre Save Tokula, who set up Waikato’s third try to Christian Lealifano.
Harris and Renata swapped penalty goals to put the visitors ahead 28-20 but Harbour finished the half hot on attack. Harris made another fine break just before the interval but he was unable to link up with his support as the halftime siren sounded.
Harbour got off to the perfect start with a try in the first two minutes of the second spell. Hooker James Parsons slid over in the corner after some impressive lead up work from Luamanu and captain Michael Reid from a clean lineout win by All Black Anthony Boric. Harris continued his 100% goalkicking record with a beauty from the open stand touchline and Harbour were within a point at 28-27 behind.
Three consecutive penalties awarded to Waikato by referee Shane McDermott put Harbour under immense pressure but they got a lucky break when Leonard spilled the ball over the goalline under some heavy defense. McDermott whistled a fourth straight penalty from the resulting scrum, which Renata hooked to the left of the posts to the obvious pleasure of the crowd of 4900.
McDermott was into Harbour again a minute later and issued captain Reid with a general warning for killing the ball in the rucks. Renata couldn’t miss the sitter to give his team the lead 31-27.
Young Harbour winger Nafi Tuitavaki sparked a Harbour counter attack with a sharp break reminiscent of his older brother Anthony. Luamanu followed up with another burst but the ball was spilled as the night dew descended on North Harbour Stadium.
The introduction of All Black centre Richard Kahui from the bench paid instant dividends for Waikato when with his first touch he set up a try for lock Dominiko Waqaniburotu who secured the bonus point.
Waikato dominated territory with their big, experienced forward pack in top form, but they were kept at bay by a well organised and courageous defensive effort from Harbour, with the loose forward trio outstanding.
Harbour were clearly disappointed having no points to show for their efforts and a worrying injury toll was another concern after the game. But hopefully coach Dowd will have a full squad to pick from for Friday’s huge Ranfurly Shield challenge against Southland in Invercargill.
Waikato 36 (Brendon Leonard, Dwayne Sweeney, Christian Lealifano, Dominiko Waqaniburotu tries; Trent Renata 2 con 4 pen) North Harbour 27 (Ben Afeaki, Alipate Fatafehi, James Parsons tries; Michael Harris 3 cons, 2 pen).
Half time: Waikato 28-20