Otago - NPC News - 2003

Otago denied at death in classic provincial tussle
By Brent Edwards

There were tears at Carisbrook on Saturday night, tears that Otago lost yet another close one and tears of joy at one of the national championship classics.

This was the match of the season, one of the great games of provincial rugby and, when Iliesa Tanivula scored after the final siren to win it for Auckland, it was impossible to harbour recriminations against Otago. Both sides played themselves to a standstill in an enthralling, pulsating contest. The lead changed six times in a game which seemed destined for extra time. But Auckland, as it had done throughout, attacked until the end and clinched a thrilling victory.

Bryce Williams won the final line-out, it seemed likely Tasesa Lavea would drop for goal but he moved the ball to Tanivula who slipped the desperate lunge of Glen Horton and burst through the last-gasp efforts of Jeremy Aldworth and Neil Brew, to score under the posts. There was desolation for Otago which, for the ninth time in 12 years, had been beaten in an NPC semifinal or final. And there was jubilation for Auckland which, already having taken the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury, will now defend its NPC title against Wellington in Wellington on Saturday night.

Auckland deserved its win because of the superior speed and skills of its backs and the controlling influence of Lavea, possibly an All Black of the future, at first five-eighth. The backline, reshuffled in the absence of Ben Atiga and Sam Tuitupou, was still a lethal attacking force and its uninhibited approach deserved success.

But Otago, despite having little possession, trailed only 15-19 at half-time and, when outstanding prop Carl Hayman burst over for a try, after a break by Josh Blackie 15min from the end, it was ahead 32-29 and in sight of a home final. But Brent Ward levelled the scores with a penalty a few minutes later and then, with the coaches from both sides preparing for extra time, came the dramatic finale. "There were no losers in that game," ecstatic Auckland captain Xavier Rush said later. "Both sides were winners. We just came away with more points."

Rush said Auckland's plan had been to move the ball away from the strong Otago pack. "Otago's a pretty ruthless pack and we didn't want to get into too much of an arm wrestle with them. We wanted to play a bit of hit and run. It was one hell of a game." Otago made the most of its chances in the first half, during which Auckland dominated possession and territory.

Blackie scored from a line-out drive on Simon Maling and Brew finished off the second try, after eight phases, when he stepped inside Orene Ai'i. And, when Otago scored the first try of the second spell to take the lead 22-19, after a helter-skelter period of non-stop action, there were thoughts it might be about to assume control. Blackie sprinted over in the corner for his second after Willie Walker chipped through and Matt Saunders gathered to put the outstanding flanker in space.

But Auckland is a side of grit, as well as glamour, and it was thrust and counter-thrust for the remainder of the game before "Tiny" Tanivula, a Highlander earlier this year, silenced the Carisbrook crowd with his last-minute, low-slung run.

Tony Brown's early departure with a hamstring injury did not help the Otago defensive pattern but the backline displayed more attacking intent than in many of the previous games. Danny Lee had a tigerish game at halfback and, had he been able to score on the stroke of half-time - he was penalised for trying to rabbit over - the final outcome might have been different. Auckland more than matched Otago in the set pieces, and scored its third try from a line-out steal, but the Otago forwards hoed into their work in the second spell and won a torrent of ruck and maul ball.

Hayman had his finest game in an Otago jersey, Ben Nolan played more like a veteran than a rookie, Simon Maling played himself to a standstill and Blackie, as he has been throughout the class, was a class act. But it was not quite enough against a very fine Auckland side, in which Rush, Justin Collins, Brad Mika and Derren Witcombe provided the glue in the forwards. Lavea showed brilliant vision to set up the first try, for Ai'i, with a little left-footed chip, Tanivula was a constant danger at centre and Tony Koonwaiyou showed the value of sheer pace to score his two tries on the left wing.

Otago, in the end, missed too many vital tackles and made too many errors during the heat of battle. But this was a game made in heaven and, no matter which side you supported, you had to be moved by the commitment and skills displayed in one of the great provincial matches.

Auckland 39 (Iliesa Tanivula, 2, Tony Koonwaiyou, 2, Orene Ai' tries, Brent Ward 4 conversions, 2 penalty goals) Otago 32 (Josh Blackie, 2, Neil Brew, Carl Hayman tries, Willie Walker 3 conversions, 2 penalty goals).


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