Otago - NPC News

Brave Otago side refuses to lay down in thriller
By Brent Edwards

Otago fans needed their heart pills and their prayer-books before North Harbour was vanquished 39-37 in the national championship match at Carisbrook yesterday.

In one of the most bizarre NPC games in recent times, three penalty tries (two to Otago) were awarded in the last quarter and Brendan Laney kicked the winning penalty from 45m in injury-time. Laney, who would not have been kicking at all had Tony Brown not been forced to leave the field with a nose which would not stop bleeding, was engulfed by his team-mates as the ball sailed between the posts.

Otago seemed out of it when it trailed 12-23 at half-time, and dead and buried when it was down 22-37 with 11 minutes remaining. But then referee Paul Honiss, who had earlier drawn the ire of the Otago supporters, turned from villain to hero. Substitute No. 8 Matt O'Connell smashed almost to the line and a penalty try was awarded for North Harbour coming over the top and killing the ball. Five minutes from the end, Honiss was under the posts again. Laney waltzed almost to the line, Cory Brown was within centimetres of scoring and North Harbour was penalised for a deliberate off-side.

A point behind, Otago had a chance to take the lead two minutes later but Laney's attempt, from 41m and 14m from touch, drifted to the left. But Otago continued to attack and, with time up, No. 8 Ron Cribb was adjudged off-side. Laney placed the ball carefully, 44m out and 15m from the right touch, and he was instantly installed as the hero of Carisbrook as the ball floated over the cross-bar.

Those were the bare bones of a dramatic contest which left Otago second-equal after the fourth round of the NPC. It was the ultimate in Houdini acts - a week after it scored an injury-time try to draw with Southland - and the North Harbour players were shattered as they sat in the silence of their dressing-room.

Otago hardly fired a shot in the first half and it was probably fortunate not to be more than 11 points down at the interval. There was little continuity in its play and the backs struggled to pass and catch the ball, let alone do anything constructive with it. But Laney kicked a penalty early in the second spell, captain Kelvin Middleton smashed over from a tap penalty - his third try in as many matches - and Otago had trimmed the deficit to one point. But North Harbour soon extended its lead to 15 points. It was awarded a penalty try after hooker Slade McFarland surged to the line, and 16 minutes from the end replacement front-rower Hona Kingi smashed over to score the fourth try and clinch a bonus point.

Otago seemed out for the count but O'Connell started surging forward, Middleton rallied the other troops and soon it was North Harbour trying to hold on. At 37-36, wing Karl Tenana intercepted a pass from Matt Carrington and began the sprint which would have sealed the win for North Harbour but he was called back and penalised for off-side. Otago deserved credit for hanging in when all seemed lost. The line-out worked well, the scrum was solid and the entire pack - with Middleton, O'Connell and Joe McDonnell prominent - hoed in during the last quarter. The backs struggled for fluency and combination, made too many mistakes and perhaps the individual highlight was a match-saving tackle by fullback Hayden Reid on Aisea Tuilevu. Openside flanker Matua Parkinson, a brother of Otago centre Reuben, was outstanding for North Harbour, Mark Robinson, Frano Botica and Walter Little drew on their vast experience, and Rua Tipoki and Glenn Davis were elusive runners.

But it was a shattering day for North Harbour, on and off the field. All Black lock Ian Jones did not get to play his final game in New Zealand at Carisbrook after his three-month-old son, Flynn, took ill early on Saturday. And coach Buck Shelford flew to Rotorua immediately after the game after news his father was seriously ill. "It's been a tough week and today's result made it a triple whammy," North Harbour assistant coach Allan Pollock said later. "But I guess it puts rugby in perspective."

Scores: Otago 39 (2 penalty tries, Kelvin Middleton try; Tony Brown 3 penalty goals, Brendan Laney 3 conversions, 3 penalty goals), North Harbour 37 (penalty try, Aisea Tuilevu, Troy Flavell, Hona Kingi tries; Frano Botica 4 conversions, 3 penalty goals).

Match statistics: Line-outs: Otago, 15-10; rucks and mauls: Otago, 28-22; penalties: 11-11. Kicking: Brown, 3-4; Laney, 6-7; Botica, 7-7. Half-time: Harbour, 23-12. Crowd: About 9000. Referee: Paul Honiss (Waikato).


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