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QBE Insurance North Harbour 23 Counties-Manukau 24
By Peter White
THE WIDTH OF THE POST IS ALL that stopped a gallant North Harbour team beating Counties-Manukau in a thrilling match for the Lion Red Challenge Cup, played at a sun-drenched Bayer Growers Stadium in Pukekohe on Sunday.
Michael Harris had the chance to win it with a sideline conversion late in the game but his superb kick bounced off the post to leave Harbour with just one point from a match they had to win to keep top seven aspirations alive. You could argue that North Harbour deserved to get more out of this game but obviously there is no ‘deserved’ column on the points table. It was a game they will look back on as one that got away.
Statistics do not always tell the full story about a team’s efforts but points conceded is a fair indicator. Only Manawatu have a worse defensive record than Harbour in the 2010 ITM Cup. The defence has been the number one work-on all season and despite the patient hours spent attempting to fix the problem at training, in the end the poor first half defence against Counties-Manukau was costly. Their first two tries should have been closed down early, but at least Harbour’s defence did improve considerably in the second spell.
Harbour were led out by Luke McAlister in his 50th game for the union, and played into a slight breeze in the first half. The players wore white arm bands in support of team mate Malakai Ravulo, whose father tragically drowned in a fishing accident last week.
Harbour had an early scare when a sweet pass from All Blacks legend Tana Umaga nearly put Viliami Fihaki in, but the veteran Umaga made no mistake when he crossed for the opening try from a slick move he started 55 metres out.
Harris opened Harbour’s account with a penalty, after Harbour showed plenty of enterprise running the ball from deep, but poor defence again made it too easy for talented fullback Tim Nanai Williams to score.
Down 14-3, Harbour hit back putting together 12 phases on attack which tighthead prop Ben Afeaki, whose outstanding form has him in serious All Black contention, finished off with an excellent try. The reliable Harris converted from out wide.
But then Harbour suffered a double injury blow so early in the game with captain Michael Reid off with a recurrence of his damaged toe, replaced by James Afoa, and Luke McAlister replaced by Brendon Watt after another bang on his injured jaw.
Fullback Jack McPhee, lacking confidence and having a poor day with his hands, made a mess of fielding a kick ahead but was saved by some excellent covering from openside flanker Tom Chamberlain. The ball was carried back though, giving Counties-Manukau a scrum feed just five metres out, and under intense pressure Harbour’s defence held out that danger, and a wave of attacks for the remainder of the first half.
The home team dominated possession (76%) and field position (55%) but Harbour would have been content to trail by just 14-10 at the break, despite having so little of the ball to play with.
The wind picked up behind Harbour in the second spell, but they started badly by knocking on the kick off, and then conceding a penalty Dean Cummings easily converted to points.
No 8 Mathew Luamanu sparked Harbour with a barnstorming 40 metre run, leading to a penalty. Chris Smylie tapped it quickly and the cheeky halfback scored to close the gap to 17-15. Unfortunately Harbour’s injury woe continued, with Luamanu tweaking a hamstring during his big run, replaced by Scott Uren, and Watt and McPhee also leaving the field. Auckland loan player Grayson Hart came on at halfback, shifting stand-in captain Smylie to the right wing and Pisi to fullback.
Despite the player turnover, Harbour took the lead for the first time when Harris goaled well with 20 minutes left to play. However, they were struggling to gain any dominance and were just hanging on. Nanai Williams cut Harbour’s defence to ribbons with a great 40 metre run but somehow Harbour survived, until the sheer weight of numbers and possession made a try inevitable, with Nanai Williams strolling over.
Harbour dug deep to dominate the final stages and chase an outstanding victory.
With 12 minutes left, Pisi made a sharp break, Hart charged down an Umaga clearance, and Harbour had a five metre scrum feed. But Harbour’s scrum was under pressure and the chance was lost when the resulting move ended with a dropped pass three metres from the line.
Pisi and Ben Botica combined down the left touchline to give Harbour a late lineout close to the Counties-Manukau line but again the ball was turned over. Harbour were awarded a penalty with five minutes to play and took the lineout option driving for the line. A professional foul from Counties-Manukau (which should have been punished with a yellow card), followed by a poor lineout throw, seemed to have cost Harbour their last chance before Harris showed his calmness under pressure. With one of the final plays of the game, he took a wonderful option to kick ahead and the flying Nafi Tuitavaki scored in the corner.
Harris, who surely deserves selection in next year’s Blues’ team, had the chance to win the game from the sideline but his superbly struck conversion hit the post. From the kick off, centre Jack Tarrant made a fine break as the siren sounded but his speculative pass to Tuitavake ended up in the crowd, and that was that.
Harbour are in action again next Sunday when they host Wellington at North Harbour Stadium, with kick off at 2.35pm.
QBE INSURANCE NORTH HARBOUR 23 (Ben Afeaki, Chris Smylie, Nafi Tuitavake tries; Michael Harris con, 2 pen) COUNTIES-MANUKAU 24 (Tim Nanai Williams 2, Tana Umaga, tries; Nanai Williams 2 cons; Dean Cummings con, pen).
Halftime: 14-10 Counties-Manukau