2017 is just the beginning of a strong period for Northland rugby.

A semifinal finish was well deserved as the Taniwha, led by returning coach Derren Witcombe, combined defensive staunchness and attacking flair to the tune of five wins.

They fell to a sublime Wellington side but to go from one win in two years to a playoff spot is nothing to scoff at.

Where they excelled

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Northland turned around from being a lacking side defensively to arguably the best in the Mitre 10 Cup in the space of about 12 months. This was built on simple defensive schemes and hard graft.

Assistant coach Dale MacLeod said early in the season "it's about getting everyone connected, having even spacing and getting quick line speed" and that philosophy made it tough for opponents to rack up big totals.

The scrum was a dominant area for the Taniwha as the front row of Ross Wright, Matt Moulds and Ropate Rinakama proved a more than effective combination. There weren't many days they struggled and they took the fight to every scrum they faced.

Matt Moulds had a strong season at hooker, combining well with fellow front rowers Ross Wright and Ropate Rinakama. PHOTO/TANIA WHYTE
Matt Moulds had a strong season at hooker, combining well with fellow front rowers Ross Wright and Ropate Rinakama. PHOTO/TANIA WHYTE

The backline consistently found room to roam out wide where the likes of Jack Goodhue, Rene Ranger, Jone Macilai and Solomon Alaimalo found plenty of gaps in whatever defensive line they played.

Alaimalo (second) and Macilai (ninth) were amongst the top metre-eaters while Ranger constantly found opportunities to offload.

Where they struggled

The lineout remains a work in progress for Northland. With Super Rugby players in Moulds at hooker and Josh Goodhue at lock, there shouldn't have been the issues there were.

Northland were dead last in lineout completion percentage at a tick over 80 per cent, which cost them at times during their two matches against Wellington.

With the backline playing as expansively as they did, there was always going to be a high error rate. In their losses to Auckland, Manawatu and Counties-Manukau in particular plenty of chances were squandered in attacking territory. Ranger and Alaimalo, due to their high usage rates, led the way with turnovers.

Standout players

It's hard to nail down who were the biggest standouts in a top campaign from Northland. All members of the front row were impressive as were the likes of Tim Bond, Murray Douglas and Dan Pryor with their high work rates.

Out in the backs there were plenty of candidates for the best player. Alaimalo again shone at fullback in his second season, Ranger was inspired in his return to the Cambridge Blue and Jordan Hyland was an absolute workhorse on the right wing.

But the player of the year surely was new All Black selection Jack Goodhue. The midfielder was sublime in his first season with his home province, continually finding metres where there shouldn't have been any.

Jack Goodhue was sensational in the midfield, earning a well-deserved selection for the All Blacks Northern Tour. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES
Jack Goodhue was sensational in the midfield, earning a well-deserved selection for the All Blacks Northern Tour. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

His defensive nous and ability to both break the line himself and put others into space with his superior distribution skills helped lead Northland to a great season.

Best performance - Northland beat Waikato 37-7

This was the "take notice" performance for the Taniwha. Led by a dominant effort from their forwards, they put the sword to a Waikato side that at that stage was looking good for a Premiership playoff berth - not the relegated side they became.

The poor conditions didn't inhibit their ability to pick up points as they scored five tries in a brilliant all-round effort from all 23 players.

Worst performance - Northland lost to Manawatu 39-25

This wasn't a bad game, more a disappointing one. Wanting a great start to an nine-day, three-game stretch, with a win over a Championship rival, a lack of execution cost them not only a victory but vital bonus points.

Northland led with 18 minutes to go but a lull circa 2016 was telling with further losses to North Harbour and Counties-Manukau costing the side a home playoff match.

Looking to 2018

Witcombe and the side have laid a strong platform for the next couple of seasons. They lose Ranger to France and Jack Goodhue's availability will be subject to higher honours but the bulk of the squad should remain.

The side is built on, as captain Moulds said, "good values and good blokes", which will again make them Championship contenders in the new year.

Improvements need to be made but these blokes in the Cambridge Blue look like they are more than willing and able to do so.