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By Peter White
QBE INSURANCE North Harbour turned around the form guide to beat Northland 33-26 in front of 6200 supporters at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday evening.
The second half effort was particularly impressive with loose forwards Mat Luamanu, Scott Uren and Solly King leading the way, but the intensity throughout the team shook the confidence out of a Northland team wanting maximum points to have a chance of making the ITM Championship final.
Harbour started the game with a simple dropped pass and conceded a penalty when Luamanu’s tackle was deemed high. Lachie Munroe missed the kick but made no mistake two minutes later when Luamanu was called out for not releasing at the ruck.
Munro made it 6-0 after nine minutes before Harbour got stuck in with a great move started deep in their half by Nafi Tuitavake. Backs and forwards combined well in multiple phases to earn a penalty which Ben Botica easily slotted.
King, back in his preferred No 6 jersey, stood out in the early stages with some strong ball carries and combined well with openside flanker Uren who was never far from the ball. Willie Walker scored Harbour’s first try after 18 minutes after the two loosies were heavily involved in the set-up phases. Botica added the extras to put Harbour ahead 10-6.
Blues star Jared Payne sparked Northland into life with an incisive break but Harbour’s defence held firm against eight phases near their line. Referee Keith Brown penalised Harbour yet again at a ruck and this time Munro took the kick to close the gap to 10-9 after 27 minutes.
Harbour’s juggernaut No 8 Luamanu made a savage break up the middle and Harbour won a penalty. They drove to the Northland line but were held up. Referee Brown penalised Northland again and this time Botica took the points to put Harbour up 13-9.
Harbour hooker Michael Mayhew showed some top end pace to set up another attacking raid which Munro stopped dead with a great tackle. Crucially, Northland showed more commitment at the next ruck to push Harbour off the ball and clear the danger.
Northland had one more chance as the halftime hooter sounded and gained yet another ruck penalty. Munro kicked the goal for Harbour to lead by a single point 13-12 at the break.
Harbour made a great start to the second stanza when dynamic winger David Raikuna showed the speed that made him a NZ Sevens star earlier this year, when he cut through to score a fine individual try. Botica converted for a useful 20-12 lead.
Rudi Wulf made a scything tackle on Payne to the delight of the packed crowd in the main stand. Uren continued his good form of the first half with a sharp break which led directly to a penalty 28 metres out in front. Botica slotted for a 23-12 lead.
All the good work was wasted by sloppy work from the kick off by Harbour. A rushed clearing kick was charged down and Northland lock Mark Burman looked certain to score until Luamanu’s big paw knocked the ball out of his grasp over the line.
Northland won a tighthead on Harbour’s line and Botica tackled his opposite Aaron Bancroft without the ball to prevent a try. Referee Brown was lenient with awarding just a penalty and Northland packed down another scrum in a crucial moment in the match. They went blind and Cam Goodhue scored a simple try through a gaping hole in Harbour’s defensive line. Munro converted to make it 23-19 after 57 minutes.
Goodhue’s night came to a shattering end a minute later when he was run over by the Luamanu bus but Northland took the lead soon after when Bryce Heem scored a superb try in the left corner. Munro’s conversion gave the Taniwha the lead 26-23.
Big Luamanu was back in the action immediately, swatting off defenders like flies to score his eighth try of the season. Botica added the conversion and Harbour had the lead back 30-26.
Pita Ahki injected himself into the game from the bench with a dazzling cut but the move broke down with a penalty awarded to Harbour from the pile up. Botica kept his 100% record tonight with another fine kick to stretch the lead to seven points.
Botica tried a drop kick with three minutes left but pushed it wide. Harbour turned the ball over with less than two minutes to play but had Northland stuck in their own 22. Former Harbour favourite Jack McPhee looked lively on his return to Albany but Harbour held firm to record a tremendous victory.
North Harbour 33 (W Walker, D Raikuna, M Luamanu try; B Botica 3 con, 4 pens)
Northland 26 (C Goodhue, B Heem tries; L Munro con, 4 pens)
Halftime: Harbour 13-12