Otago - NPC News - 2003

Captain leads from front in stirring win
By Brent Edwards

Kelvin Middleton celebrated his 50th national championship match by captaining Otago to a stirring win over Canterbury at Carisbrook on Saturday night.

The blindside flanker was a key component in a compelling forward performance as Otago gained maximum points to retain its lead after four rounds of the NPC. While the cynical suggested Otago had almost sleep walked its way to its first three wins, the players lifted their intensity to beat Canterbury for the first time since 1998. Middleton was also the captain in that game - Taine Randell was on All Black duty - in a season which ended in Otago winning the NPC for only the second time.

And, while these are early days, Otago has given itself an ideal launching pad to at least make the semifinals.
"It's satisfying because a lot of the guys have never been in a side which has beaten Canterbury," Middleton said later. "We felt we'd been lacking a bit in the first three games and we hadn't been happy. We'd played well only in bits and pieces. "We certainly weren't satisfied with the way we'd played against Bay of Plenty the previous week, and there some honest talking during the week. We had to lift ourselves and there was a big improvement."

Otago weathered an initial onslaught from Canterbury, responded with some clinical rugby to lead 18-0 after 19min and, while Canterbury did strike back, Otago was never in danger of losing this game.
The forwards were dominant for longish periods and their work was complemented by the outstanding inside back trio of Danny Lee, Tony Brown and Seilala Mapusua. Brown made a half-break for the first try, Mapusua broke the line with a powerful run and left wing Brad Fleming crashed through two tackles to score.
It was the Brown-Mapusua combination again in the second try. Brown made a big tackle, Mapusua hacked the loose ball ahead and collected a favourable bounce to score.

Ahead 18-8 at half-time, Otago snuffed out thoughts of a remarkable Canterbury comeback when it scored almost immediately after the break. Otago won five phases, Anton Oliver crashed through in midfield and Mapusua fended off his opposite Doug Tausili to score his second.
It seemed the bonus point might elude Otago, especially when it lost three consecutive line-outs on its own throw late in the spell.

But, 4min from the end, Tom Willis' long throw found Josh Blackie, the forwards rumbled to the line and it was Willis - grinning and relieved - who emerged with the ball.
The loss of five line-outs on its own throw, and the conceding of so many penalties and free kicks (18 to 11) were the only significant negatives in what was a fine performance.

Neil Brew missed his opposite, Casey Laulala, badly when Scott Hamilton scored the first Canterbury try, prop Campbell Johnstone scored a rather soft try from a tap penalty when the game was in its death throes, but Otago was otherwise well-organised in defence. The entire pack played well, from rookie Ben Nolan at tighthead prop through to flanker Josh Blackie, who continued his excellent form. Two defensive scrums early in the second spell, in which Otago shoved Canterbury back - Greg Feek and Tone Kopelani were substituted soon after - summed up Otago's commitment. Locks Filipo Levi and Peter Bowden lifted their work-rate from previous weeks while Sam Harding was again constructive and energetic from No 8.

Brown and Mapusua were like a two-man demolition gang in defence, and just as strong on attack. It is difficult to recall either playing better for Otago. Andrew Mehrtens showed some nice touches at times - and raised his 1000 points for Canterbury with his second penalty goal - but Brown trumped his every move in an inspirational display.

Norm Maxwell and Matt Dalzell gained Canterbury plentiful line-out ball, flanker Johnny Leo'o was the best of the loose trio but the backs had few genuine chances. Laulala was the most penetrative runner, Joe Maddock looked likely on the wing, but it was not Canterbury's night.

Coach Aussie McLean was blunt in his assessment after Canterbury suffered its first loss of the season.
"We got outplayed by a better team," he said. "They [Otago] were hungrier than us and we fell off a few important tackles."

Scores. -
Otago 32 (Seilala Mapusua, 2, Brad Fleming, Tom Willis tries; Willie Walker 3 conversions, 1 penalty goal, Tony Brown dropped goal); Canterbury 16 (Scott Hamilton, Campbell Johnstone tries; Andrew Mehrtens 2 penalty goals).
Match statistics: Line-outs, Canterbury, 19-10; rucks and mauls, Otago, 94-81; penalties, Canterbury, 18-11. Kicking: Walker, 4-8; Mehrtens, 2-4. Half-time: 18-8. Crowd: About 10,500. Referee: Lyndon Bray (Wellington).


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