|Pukekohe hoodoo sees Otago
crash to first NPC loss
Pukekohe: Steelers Stadium at Pukekohe, arguably New Zealand's
most decrepit stadium and with the worst playing surface, has
often proved to be a hoodoo ground for Otago and so it was again
in Saturday's national provincial championship first division
It Otago, unbeaten in its previous NPC matches this year, was
upset by one of the bottom sides, Counties-Manukau, 14-11 and
so lost its chance of taking the outright lead in the competition.
While the stadium pitch was far from ideal, and might have contributed
in part to the early and crucial injury to ace No 8 Paul Miller
when he fell awkwardly, it was not impossible either, as the home
side showed with two spectacular tries late in the first spell.
But, Counties-Manukau had the advantage of having played on its
difficult home pitch in three recent matches when the conditions
have been atrocious and it clearly had a better game plan. It
also probably had an edge in motivation and desperation. Another
loss, particularly given the other upset results of the weekend,
notably by Southland, would have increased Counties' relegation
danger. Coach Andrew Talaimanu referred to this pressure immediately
after the match though he avoided talk of relegation. But he indicated
some of the determination in his side with this comment: "We've
had our knockers about our ground and our team, and the only way
to answer was on the field."
Otago, by contrast, was heavily favoured going into the match.
And while it has some hard games left, starting with Canterbury
this Saturday, it is still well placed to make the play-offs.
Counties surprised by matching Otago in the set pieces and, despite
the presence of two All Black props in Kees Meeuws and Carl Hayman,
Otago could not unsettle a solid Counties scrum in which the Manu
Samoa Polo Asi was the anchor. In the line-outs too, Counties
proved competitive through lock Ramon Lindsay and flanker Hare
Makiri and it stole a number of Otago's throws. Complementing
the work of the Counties pack was a backline which had excitement
and flair, and it was these qualities which enabled it to clinch
the result with two counter-attacking tries in rapid order late
in the first spell. The chief contributors to these were the fullback
Loki Crichton, who is clearly in the top two or three players
in this position in the country, and teenage centre Casey Laulau
who has been in recent national under-19 sides.
The first swept the length of field after breaks by both Crichton
and Laulau saw wing Niva Tuuaso score. The second also involved
Crichton and Laulau and some excellent backing up from first
five-eighth Blair Feeney for open-side flanker Wayne McEntee
to score. It was an appropriate reward for McEntee, who celebrated
with relish. McEntee had tried his rugby luck in Otago playing
for the Green Island club. But the abundance of loose forward
talent in Otago meant he could not break into the top side.
Despite having nearly 60% of the possession, Otago trailed
14-3 at half-time and its frustrations continued in the second
spell. Counties' penchant for trying to slow down the ball,
or kill it in rucks and mauls, saw a lopsided penalty count
against it from Taranaki referee Paul Macfie. The penalties
went 5-2 to Otago in the first spell and a whopping 10-1 in
the second spell. But still Otago could not gain the initiative.
Brendan Laney landed two of his six attempts at goal and its
only try to replacement first five eighths Tony Brown came after
a series of sustained mauls and drives. Otago's unhappy day
was summed up right on full-time when it seemed it might just
sneak what would have been a lucky win. Laney, now at fullback
for the injured Hayden Reid, made a break and for a second it
seemed wing Ryan Nicholas was in the clear but he was cut down
by the covering tackle of Counties captain and halfback Danny
Counties-Manukau 14 (Niva Taauso, Wayne McEntee tries, Blair
Feeney 2 conversions) Otago 11 (Tony Brown try, Brendan Laney
2 pens). Half-time: 14-3.