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By Peter White
QBE INSURANCE North Harbour scored four tries to two against Wellington at North Harbour Stadium on Friday night but still lost the game 29-28 to end the season on a disappointing note.
Wellington Lions were playing for their lives, with a loss tonight meaning the very likely chance of relegation from the ITM Premiership. They have NZ Under 20’s first-five Lima Sopoaga to thank for the victory as the young tyro kicked his team to victory with a perfect goalkicking display.
Harbour will rue how the usually dead-eye accuracy of Ben Botica deserted him after a promising start as he missed his last three kicks including a handy conversion late in the game. But a lack of patience and accuracy with the ball, and conceding too many penalties, cost Harbour dearly.
World Cup bound All Black Anthony Boric played the first half and got through well in his first game for nine weeks. He would have been impressed by the Harbour forward effort, especially in a rousing opening half, and the backline looked dangerous with ball in hand.
Harbour got off to a great start when Ben Botica kicked through and Wellington halfback TJ Perenara was penalised. Botica slotted with ease from out wide. Harbour scored a beauty after seven minutes after a rollicking short side move featuring Filo Paulo, James Afoa, Solomon King and David Raikuna. Captain Chris Smylie was on hand to score and with Botica’s slick conversion Harbour were up 10-0.
Harbour openside Scott Uren charged away to spark another raid but was penalised at the tackle. Wellington first-five Lima Sopoaga broke through some weak Harbour fringe defence and won a penalty. From 40 metres he slotted well to put Wellington on the board trailing 10-3.
Sopoaga then found out what it feels like to be smashed by James Afoa in a crunching tackle. From the turnover Luamanu drove into the Wellington 22 looking for try number nine this season but was cut down in a fine tackle. Harbour kept possession well and Boric and Afoa nearly crashed over. Afoa was injured in the final play and had to be replaced by Alex Woonton, after 15 minutes of huge impact.
Botica kicked the resulting penalty to stretch Harbour’s lead to 13-3 after 19 minutes. But Wellington struck back immediately with flanker Faifili Levave scoring out wide from a set move. Sopoanga converted to close the gap to three points.
Former All Black Rudi Wulf showed his class charging down a speculative Wellington kick with a clean catch then sprinting away to put Raikuna in at the corner. Botica had a rare miss but Harbour were ahead 18-13. Wellington turned down a very kickable kick at goal and camped on Harbour’s line with successive attacking scrums but somehow Harbour escaped, hurriedly running the ball out from behind their line.
A smart kick by Brendon Watt changed field position, then a moment of brilliance from Smylie ripped apart Wellington and his clever in-pass was well taken by hooker James Parsons who crashed over for a great try. Botica just missed from the chalk but Harbour went to the break more than satisfied leading 23-10.
Boric was replaced at halftime by James King. Wellington had turned down several easy attempts in the first half but kicked for goal immediately in the second spell, with Sopoaga slotting a fine kick to reduce the deficit to 23-13. He repeated the effort a minute later and within four minutes of the restart the gap was just seven points.
Julian Savea raced away from Harbour’s defence for what looked a certain try until referee Shane McDermott called him back for a forward pass to the relief of the Harbour faithful at the ground. Wellington were looking threatening with rejected All Blacks winger Hosea Gear looking for opportunities to show his pace.
Another penalty conceded that left Harbour’s forwards looking bemused gave Sopoaga another shot at goal, and he goaled well from 44 metres to make it 23-19 to Harbour after 54 minutes. Charlie Ngatai than split Harbour’s midfield defence and made a classic break to give Gear an easy run in to the try-line. Sopoaga converted to give Wellington the lead for the first time in the match 26-23.
Harbour stormed back into the game and what a ripper! Raikuna slipped through the narrowest of gaps, found Wulf with a great pass and when he was tackled just short, Raikuna pulled in the pass one handed for a superb try. Botica surprisingly missed his third consecutive shot but Harbour were back in front 28-26 with 14 minutes left.
A typically contentious ruck penalty three minutes inside Harbour’s half gave Sopoaga a chance to regain the lead and he kept his perfect kicking record with another great goal and the lead 29-26 to Wellington. Replacement hooker Manu Leiataua grabbed the kick off to put Harbour right back on attack with eight phases at Wellington’s line. But the defence held out and Wellington cleared for safety in a game defining moment.
It was a sad end to a disappointing season from a results perspective but the last few games had shown plenty of spirit and desire to play for Harbour – which can only be a good sign as the coaching staff and senior players build towards next season. Many young players now know what it takes to succeed at this level and many of the games were winnable so definitely plenty of positives to focus on in the months ahead.
Wellington 29 (F Levave, H Gear tries; L Sopoaga 2 cons, 5 pens)
North Harbour 28 (D Raikuna 2, C Smylie, J Parsons tries; B Botica con 2 pen)
Halftime: 23-10 Harbour