leads from front in stirring win
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).