Northland showed North Harbour they have buckets of attacking flair but will need to develop more passion for defence after failing to maintain their lead in their ITM clash at Albany.
The Taniwha had to settle for three competition points after Harbour fought back to level the scores at 33-all three minutes from time on Saturday. Their inability to close out the game after leading for three-quarters of the match was hugely disappointing for the team, second-five eighths Derek Carpenter said.
"We were pleased with the way we absorbed some of the pressure and then turned it around and applied it on them to produce some key moments in the game," he said.
"Ranger's quick tap that set up Rupeni's first try swung the momentum our way and we were able to get out to a good lead but we've got to be able to shut the game out from there - it's about playing smarter rugby."
The Mid Northern stalwart, playing in his 35th appearance for Northland, said the team's passion and determination couldn't be faulted but decision making when the pressure is on was sometimes lacking.
The most glaring example of that was when Rene Ranger was sinbinned for needlessly playing the ball on the wrong side of the ruck - just two minutes after Harbour's openside flanker Zac Judge was red carded by referee Chris Pollock for a tip tackle on the Northland skipper.
With Ranger sidelined, All Black squad member Francis Saili broke through the midfield to lay on a try for wing Nafi Tuitavake. Super boot Jon Elrick converted from the sideline to level the scores and dash Northland's hopes on ending the weekend on top of the Championship table.
Harbour, playing their second game in four days, started with Jordan Manihera finishing off a 16 phase spell of possession with a try in the corner for Harbour. Northland struck back almost immediately when Ranger took a quick tap penalty 10m from his line in a moment of brilliance to put (Rupeni) Caucaunibuca away for a 60m jog for the try.
It got even better for Northland a few minutes later when fullback Whiria Meltzer finished off a 70m move which featured some brilliant support play. Caucaunibuca scored his second after 34 minutes, barging through a tackle after receiving the ball on the bounce from an attacking scrum for a 20-8 half-time lead.
Harbour started the second spell more desperately than the visitors and were denied a contentious try by the television match official, James Slater. Almost immediately afterward prop Greg Pleasants-Tate crashed over to narrow the gap to 13-20. A Ben Seymour penalty was cancelled out and the lead cut to three points after a sideline conversion when Harbour hooker James Parsons crashed over after a move at the front of the lineout.
Northland restored their lead when flanker Dan Pryor received turnover ball from a ruck, beat the tackle of Irwin Finau and showed excellent pace to sprint 50m for the bonus point try.
It was then that Northland should have shut up shop but Seymour missed a couple of kickable penalties and the Harbour bench proved more effective than the Taniwha's replacements as they finished well to earn their draw.
The Taniwha have a week to lift their game before premiership pacesetters Wellington visit Whangarei next Sunday.
"It could be a season defining game for us - those Wellington boys are an outstanding team but we'll be up for it because it's Bronson Murray's 100th ," Carpenter said.
They'll need to sort out the lineout. After starting hooker Ross Wright was concussed early on, replacement Matt Moulds threw the next four to Harbour. Northland were fortunate not to pay more of a price for their lack of possession - once again the hard working loosies Jack Ram, Dan Pryor and Jake Parangatai kept them in the game with turnovers at the breakdown.
Caucaunibuca was replaced late in the game after aggravating his hamstring.
North Harbour 33 (J. Manihera, G. Pleasants-Tate, J. Parsons, N. Tuitavake tries, C. Rei con, pen, J. Elrick con, 2 pens)
Northland 33 (R. Caucaunibuca 2, W. Meltzer, D. Pryor tries, B. Seymour 2 con, 3 pens).