By Brent Edwards
It became one of Otago rugby's darkest hours as it was overwhelmed
62-19 by clinical Canterbury in the national championship match
at Carisbrook on Saturday night.
A stunned crowd watched almost in silence as Canterbury ran in
nine tries to three, five in a sublime first half in which it
led 38-0 after 34 minutes. It
was one of the finest performances by a New Zealand provincial
side in the past decade and revived memories of the great Auckland
teams of the late-1980s. But it was made possible by an Otago
side which at times was almost embarrassingly inept, turning over
precious possession with basic handling errors. Canterbury punished
the mistakes ruthlessly and ran in some breath-taking, long-range
tries against a defence which began to leak like a sieve.
Justin Marshall punched holes around the fringes, Andrew Mehrtens
almost seemed to have the ball on a string while the Mauger
brothers, Aaron and Nathan, and wing Caleb Ralph cut some merry
capers out wide. But it all began up front where the well-drilled
Canterbury pack gave its backs, and exceptional young flanker
Richard McCaw, the platform to parade their talents. Canterbury
was as close to faultless as a rugby team gets in the first
half, helped as it was by 11 Otago turnovers and nine missed
tackles. The Canterbury backs ran on to the ball at pace and
depth and the Otago defensive screen wilted under the onslaught.
The ball might have bounced for Canterbury, some refereeing
decisions might have gone in its favour, but that tends to happen
in such situations.
The Otago line-out worked well, Simon Maling and
John Blaikie winning all their own throws, individually there
were some promising surges by Justin Matheson, Grant Webb and
Kees Meeuws, but collectively the Otago pack was outplayed.
David Gibson emerged with some credit after a torrid night at
halfback and Jeff Wilson commended himself for four or five
excellent tackles, one a stunning try-saver on Ralph. Pita Alatini
scored just before half-time after a nice offload by Matheson,
Wilson five minutes into the second spell after a forward drive,
while flanker Sam Harding surged over after a concerted attack
in the final act of the game.
But these were crumbs from the Canterbury table, whose coach
Steve Hansen, despite the performance, was his usual impassive
self. "We've hung our hat on doing the basics well and
that first half was pretty clinical," he acknowledged.
"We're trying to use space and I guess at times we did
that quite well. We want to play a type of game involving everybody.
It's working hard and doing your basic core job, and the things
that come after that are a bonus. "We'll enjoy the win
but it's just one match in a long journey." Hansen praised
his All Black inside combination, Marshall and Mehrtens, who
controlled play so impressively. "Justin just concentrated
on doing his job. He had a platform to work off and we saw the
Justin we all know and like."
Otago faces a week of intense organisation before it plays
Auckland at Carisbrook on Saturday.
Scores: Canterbury 62 (Richard McCaw 3, Matt Sexton, Andrew
Mehrtens, Aaron Mauger, Sam Broomhall, Justin Marshall, Nathan
Mauger tries; Ben Blair 7 conversions, penalty goal), Otago
19 (Pita Alatini, Jeff Wilson, Sam Harding tries; Tony Brown
Match statistics: Line-outs, Otago, 18-16; rucks and mauls,
Canterbury, 30-25; penalties, Otago, 14-6. Kicking: Blair, 8-11;
Brown, 2-4. Half-time: 38-7. Crowd: About 14,000. Referee: Kelvin
Deaker (Hawkes Bay).