North Harbour cemented their position as ITM Cup cannon fodder with a mainly lethargic home ground defeat against Counties Manukau last night.
Having been softened up by heavy defeats against premiership heavyweights Waikato and Canterbury, they were outclassed 27-15 by the Steelers at North Harbour Stadium.
Harbour's two tries came from rare attacks and even then, Counties Manukau quickly replied to protect their clear advantage in the match between two championship sides. It was their second win from three matches.
Counties Manukau played the last seven minutes with 14 men, Bundee Aki having been sinbinned by Glen Jackson for a mid-air tackle. This allowed Harbour to camp deep in Steelers' territory but they still failed to launch enough decent attacks, having spent much of the rest of the match in a spoiling role.
A near empty stadium and sadly familiar echoes greeted the two sides and they responded appropriately with a very muddled opening to the game.
Counties Manukau established an overwhelming territorial dominance that would give them a 19-8 halftime lead, and nothing typified North Harbour's woeful effort more than the final act of the half.
From a penalty in front of the posts, Steelers' wing Frank Halai hesitated and gave Harbour time to regroup before taking the initiative with a moderately paced tap kick. Harbour's lack of urgency allowed Halai to plough over the line.
Prop Simon Lemalu was heavily involved in the first two tries. He burrowed over from a ruck for the first, and then showed a nice piece of ball-playing to initiate a long range move continued by Halai and finished by Tim Nanai-Williams.
Harbour's response in the half was a try that revealed soft Counties Manukau defence against the home side's only meaningful attack in the first 40 minutes.
Both sides suffered early injury blows. Counties Manukau captain DJ Forbes departed with a deep cut around his eye after copping a boot from a team-mate and North Harbour lost first five-eighths Michael Hobbs to a leg injury.
Counties Manukau 27 (S Lemalu, T Nanai-Williams, F Halai, M Tatafu tries; B Kerr 2 con, pen)
North Harbour 15 (C Aporo 2 tries; B Hall pen, J Semple con). Halftime: 19-8.