Otago - NPC News

Little reward for hard forward labour
By Brent Edwards

Seldom has a pack laboured so long and hard for so little reward as the Otago forwards who watched their hard-won possession frittered away against Auckland at Carisbrook on Saturday night. Auckland claimed the outright lead in the national championship with its 45-10 win, the biggest loss Otago has suffered at home since its 60-24 shellacking by North Harbour in 1995. And yet the forwards gained more than enough ball to win the match. It was just that Otago was totally outclassed in the backs.

Auckland scored seven tries to two and, from the time Orene Ai'i showed his wizardry to score the first of his hat-trick with a 45m dash to the line after eight minutes, it was clear this was not Otago's night. You had to admire the grit of the Otago forwards as, well led by Kelvin Middleton, they sma-shed and bashed away, securing more than 60% possession. But then you gnashed your teeth in frustration at the backs who, time and again, were knocked down behind the advantage line by the Auckland midfield brickwall of Craig Innes and Eroni Clarke.

Otago needed to gain field position, play percentage rugby with the slippery ball and take any points on offer. But by the time that realisation dawned, the game was lost. In fact, it was all over when Auckland led 19-0 after 30 minutes and Michael Jones made sure of it with the fourth try - from a planned blindside line-out move - eight minutes into the second spell. The main remaining interest was whether Otago could score a try, and right wing Mathew Priscott - who had scored in each of his two previous appearances - obliged with two in 10 minutes. The first came after a sustained build-up in which Matt O'Connell, Joe McDonnell and Middleton surged ahead and Cory Brown chipped wide from the ruck. And the second - hotly disputed by Auckland, which claimed Priscott had been forced out in goal - came when Otago attacked through the backs from a scrum. But they were scraps compared to the Auckland feast, as it exploited gaps down the blind side and ruthlessly punished Otago turnovers.

Auckland played with skill, pace and confidence, substitute wing Doug Howlett scoring twice in the last three minutes as Otago lost the ball in the tackle as it tried to launch ambitious attacks. Otago secured its own line-out ball through John Blaikie,Brendon Timmins and Middleton, had the shunt on Auckland at several scrums and wonthe second phase by a ratioof two-to-one. Isitolo Maka twice lost the ball driving for the line but his workrate was improved, O'Connell again made an instant impact and the front-row of McDonnell, Carl Hayman and Tom Willis performed creditably before Willis had to leave with a rib injury 22 minutes from the end. But the backs were laboured and indecisive in their attacking options and they struggled with their defensive organisation to shut down their classy opponents.

Steve Devine gave the Auckland backs a flying start, Ai'i had a memorable full NPC debut and the outside backs ran on to the ball with depth and at pace to cause headaches aplenty for the Otago defence. Xavier Rush revelled in the free-running game, locks Charles Riechelmann andLeo Lafaiali'i showed goodball skills and Jones put insome trademark tackles before he was finally forced off bya badly cut cheek. It was a grand overall performance by Auckland, one which emphasised it is right on target to reclaim the NPC title for the first time since 1996.

Scores were: Auckland 45 (Orene Ai'i, 3, Doug Howlett, 2, Eroni Clarke, Michael Jones tries, Adrian Cashmore 5 conversions); Otago 10 (Mathew Priscott 2 tries).
Match statistics: Line-outs, Otago, 13-11; rucks and mauls, Otago, 47-22; penalties, Otago, 10-5. Kicking: Cashmore, 5-8; Laney, 0-2. Half-time: 19-0. Crowd: About 12,000. Referee: Paddy O'Brien (Southland)


Web design by Griffco  griffs@es.co.nz