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By Peter White
QBE INSURANCE North Harbour lost the crossover match against ITM Premiership foes Bay of Plenty by 38-17 at Mt Maunganui on Saturday night after trailing 20-3 at the break.
For the third consecutive game Harbour started poorly, conceding an early try to Bay of Plenty flanker Sam Cane after just three minutes. Chris Noakes converted from the touchline and the Steamers were up 7-0.
Harbour looked fragile under the high ball early on and unforced errors gave the home team early momentum. Lelia Masaga scored after a fine kick from Bay captain Colin Bourke and a bad bounce defeated the Harbour defence. Noakes slotted from wide to make it 14-0 after 11 minutes.
A slashing break by David Raikuna gave Harbour their first attacking chance but his in-pass was spilled with a try likely. Scott Uren and Chris Smylie combined well in another promising attack which ended in a defensive penalty for the Steamers.
Mat Luamanu set up Ken Pisi for a charge at the line after 17 minutes as Harbour settled into the game but NZ Under 20s rep Cane turned over the Harbour ball at the crucial moment.
Noakes slotted a penalty from a ruck infringement to stretch the lead to 17-0 after 21 minutes. Harbour then put in their best attack of the game with 10 phases but again turned the ball over to end a promising phase.
Noakes kicked a simple penalty for a 20-0 lead after 26 minutes. A good break by Luke McAlister and clever kick ahead from Willie Walker forced an attacking scrum in front of the Steamers’ posts. But after three phases and the home team stretched, Ben Botica threw a loose pass and Bay of Plenty broke out of their danger zone.
Harbour hooker James Parsons intercepted a loose pass to get his team on attack after 35 minutes but another frustrating error gave possession back to the Steamers. Botica finally had a crack at the posts just before the break and he slotted the kick well to get Harbour on the board.
A Bourke bomb was fumbled back into touch by Botica and from the five metre scrum Bay of Plenty were penalised after a strong tackle by Luamanu to end the first half action.
The second half could not have started much worse for Harbour as elusive winger Masaga scored a well-taken individual try after a smart set piece move. Noakes hit the post for his first miss but the Bay were ahead 25-3.
Noakes made a mistake from the kick off to give Harbour a good attacking platform from a scrum feed six metres but the chance was lost when debut referee Grant Stuart made a harsh call penalising Harbour as the Bay scrum went backwards.
A sharp raid by Botica, Walker and Raikuna put Harbour back on attack after 47 minutes but after several dabs at the line Harbour finally made an error and another opportunity was gone.
Harbour brought on three replacements after 52 minutes in prop Michael Reid (James Afoa), halfback Brenton Helleur (Chris Smylie) and lock Chris Smith (Filo Paulo).
Luamanu warmed the crowd up with a barnstorming run through the Bay’s defense to set up yet another attacking raid for Harbour and he easily crossed from a tap penalty for his fourth try in three games. Botica converted to give Harbour some hope at 25-10.
But to the huge frustration of the team and coaching staff, Harbour knocked on at the kick-off to hand the ball back to the Bay. Noakes kicked an easy penalty for a 28-10 lead before Samoan international halfback Helleur made a decisive break down the touchline to give Codey Rei his second try in a Harbour jersey with his second touch off the bench.
Walker converted from the sideline to reduce the deficit to 28-17 with 15 minutes to play and give Harbour a real sniff at winning the game.
Noakes then stretched the lead out to 14 points with his fourth penalty and Harbour struggled to get off their own line when they desperately needed to be on attack.
Bay of Plenty dominated the final few minutes and scored a bonus point try through winger Ben Smith to finish off Harbour.
Special mention to Harbour flanker Solomon King, who had a storming game against his old team, slippery winger Raikuna and a pretty useful powerful scrum, but another slow start and far too many unforced errors cost Harbour dearly.
Next match for Harbour is at home against Hawke’s Bay on Thursday night at 7.35pm.
Bay of Plenty 38 (L Masaga 2, S Cane, B Smith tries; C Noakes 3 cons, 4 pen)
North Harbour 17 (M Luamanu, C Rei tries; B Botica con, pen; W Walker con)