The Bay of Plenty Volcanix have fallen two points short in their effort to beat Waikato for the first time since 1999, suffering their first loss of the 2017 season.
However, the hard-fought 19-17 loss in Hamilton on Saturday was enough to earn them a bonus point and finish the round eight points clear at the top of the Championship table.
Waikato struggled for continuity in the opening minutes but their backs looked dangerous with the ball in hand. However, it was the forwards who made the first break through.
They set a maul from a lineout, 5m from the Bay of Plenty try line, and rumbled their way over allowing Natalie Delamere to score the opening try. It was converted and Waikato led 7-0.
The Volcanix hit straight back minutes later and it was a couple of Waikite girls doing the damage. Winger Autumn-Rain Daly-Stephens received the ball on the left and cut inside before showing great strength to drive defenders back towards their own try line.
Prop Luka Connor, as she has done countless times this season, made the most of that momentum, scooping the ball up off the back of the ruck and crashing over to make the score 7-5.
For the next 20 minutes the game was a tightly contested battle in the middle of the field as both sides struggled to hold on to the ball.
After 28 minutes Bay of Plenty took the lead for the first time thanks to some quick thinking from fullback Crystal Mayes. The Volcanix were awarded a penalty for a high tackle in front of the posts and Mayes took a quick tap before shifting the ball right to Sapphire Tapsell who strolled over untouched to score. Mayes converted the try to give Bay of Plenty a 12-7 lead, which they took into halftime.
Waikato regained the lead in the second half when they took a tap 5m from the Bay of Plenty line and Delamere bulldozed her way over to score her second try of the game. First five Calista Wihone converted to make it 14-12.
The Volcanix regained the lead when Conner scored her second try. Bay of Plenty had rumbled into the Waikato 22 after a scrum in midfield and Connor again made the most of that momentum, picking up the ball 5m out and showing great strength to burst through tackles and score.
With 20 minutes left Waikato took back the lead when first five Wihone spun out of a tackle for a great try on the left to make it 19-17.
The Volcanix fought hard in the closing stages, keeping the ball in hand for multiple phases after the hooter in search of a winner, but Waikato held on for the win.
Volcanix coach Brendon Webby said he was proud of the effort his players put in.
"It was a good game, a good challenge for us and we performed really well. I was proud of the girls and the intent and desire to win they showed.
"There were just a couple of errors at crucial times that probably swung momentum back their way. Waikato were desperate to win and avoid regulation. I can't fault the effort, it was just a couple of execution errors that cost us," Webby said.
He said Connor, who now has eight tries in five games, knew how to get herself into the right positions at the right times.
"She's obviously powerful - when we're in the opposition 22 we often come away with points and a lot of that is Luka. She's strong and determined, the other girls know she's a good ball carrier so when she does get her hands on the ball close to the line they get in behind her," he said.
Waikato 19 (Calista Wihone, Natalie Delamere 2 tries; Wihone 2 con) Bay of Plenty 17 (Luka Connor 2, Sapphire Tapsell tries; Crystal Mayes con)