Take a bow Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby team centurion Chris Eaton!
For a bloke who is considered the team's third-string halfback, is only in the squad as injury cover and carried a groin injury into Saturday's Mitre 10 Cup Championship opener against the Southland Stags at Napier's McLean Park, Eaton, 33, did himself and the province proud with his contribution to the Magpies' 24-16 victory in front of a crowd of 6000.
Despite the groin tightening up with 12 minutes remaining Eaton completed the full 80 minutes, was the Magpies top tackler with 10 and had an average gain of 5.17m from his six carries in his 110th first class outing for the hosts since his 2005 debut.
"I always aim to be the best halfback and I'm not in a hurry to give up the No 9 jersey," Eaton said afterwards.
"I was pretty happy considering I had to complete Wednesday's training session before being named to start. I always knew I would be in the mix with the Magpies somewhere despite not playing a lot of club rugby because of injuries. I had 10 club games but not a lot of minutes," the former Hurricane explained.
"That wasn't a pretty win. Good teams manage to win and sometimes you have to win ugly. I knew if we could get our hands on the ball in the second half and force some turnover ball we could hang in there for the win and we did that. In the first half we were guilty of soft turnovers," he added.
Eaton was right. The Magpies conceded too many turnovers in the first half, were on the wrong end of a 6-2 penalty count at halftime and struggled under the high ball as the Stags trio of halfback Jay Renton, first five-eighth Scott Eade and former Magpies winger Ryan Tongia impressed with their accurate tactical kicks.
However it was a tribute to the Magpies defensive systems that the Stags only managed one try in the first half which second five-eighth Matthew Johnson scored in the 38th minute after one of many periods of dominance from the visiting pack. The Magpies were lucky the Stags turned down three penalty attempts at goal in the first half as their 13-3 lead at the spell could have been a lot more.
World champion Baby Blacks head coach Craig Philpott obviously delivered the right message at halftime to the Magpies. But after the final whistle he revealed he didn't have to say too much.
"We just needed the ball. Southland had 64 per cent of the possession in the first half. But I was happy with our defence particularly our rush defence. Two or three of those breakdown penalties we conceded were 50-50 and could have gone our way but I couldn't fault our will and desire as well as our physicality which were work-ons after our pre-season loss to Manawatu," Philpott said.
He praised Eaton's contribution and said the match wasn't the right arena for substitute halfback Zac Donaldson to make his debut. Philpott pointed out former All Black halfback Brad Weber will be available for Friday night's away match against Bay of Plenty which means there will be good competition for the starting No 9 berth.
"Chris made several good breaks and remembered he was 33 and looked for support," Philpott quipped.
Philpott's biggest concern after the match was his lengthy injury list. Winger Mason Emerson collected an ankle sprain in the 11th minute and could be unavailable for six weeks, flanker Tony Lamborn could also be sidelined for six weeks with a shoulder injury collected in the 24th minute and a decision on No 8 Gareth Evans availability for the Rotorua trip will be made later today after he left the field with a thigh injury in the 35th minute.
Magpies first five-eighth Ihaia West pipped Eaton for player-of-the-match honours in this scribe's eyes. His game management was superb, he succeeded with all four of his kicks at goal and had an average gain of 10.75m from his four carries.
World champion Baby Blacks loosie Marino Mikaele-Tu'u's third first class outing for the Bay was his best. He made nine tackles and beat three defenders while registering an average gain of 1.80m from his 10 carries. His 68th minute try was a key moment in the match.
Former All Black Elliot Dixon was outstanding at No 8 for the Stags with 13 carries and seven tackles. Winger Aleki Morris was always a threat on attack and finished with an average gain of 9.75m from 10 carries.
Tongia had an average gain of 10m from his 11 carries. Stags centre, Hawke's Bay's 2016 club rugby MVP Neria Fomai, was forced from the field with a concussion issue in the seventh minute.