Counties Manukau 44
Counties Manukau continued their push for promotion in the ITM Cup, clinching top spot in the Championship with a 44-31 win over Northland in Whangarei today.
The Steelers came into the contest needing only a point to secure their standing, and that was achieved early in the second half through a four-try bonus point.
Tana Umaga's side had stuttered of late and lost their last three, but their spectacular early form ensured they were unlikely to be caught at the top of the table. And so it proved, with their six-try effort this afternoon booking a date with Southland in Pukekohe for next week's semifinal.
For Northland, defeat spelled the end to their season. They required a win today to sneak into the top four but Counties proved too strong in an entertaining encounter.
The free-flowing rugby one would expect from these sides was well and truly on show, with conditions enabling some sparkling back-line play.
Counties spent most the early stages camped in Northland territory and, after squandering a couple of chances out wide through poor final passes, Ray Lee-Lo finished a nice set move to notch the first try.
A pair on penalties saw the visitors' advantage grow to 13 but Northland hit back when Ma'ama Vaipulu was sin-binned.
The home side capitalised on a poor clearing kick from Counties, with the ball being spread to Mateo Malupo who slipped between two tacklers before dotting down and celebrating Gangnam style. And the winger soon had his double after Northland skipper Rene Ranger showed strength and skill to suck in three defenders and off-load for Malupo to go over in the corner.
But, just when Northland had pulled within three, Tim Nanai-Williams illustrated his class to easily accelerate between a couple of tight forwards and over the line, giving his side a 20-10 lead into the break.
That advantage was doubled in the 10 minutes following halftime and, in the process, Counties clinched top spot in the Championship. First, Matt Talaese crashed over from close range, then Sikeli Nabou scored his side's fourth to secure the required bonus point.
The Steelers celebrated their success with another try from Nanai-Williams, before Derek Carpenter crossed to give the Taniwhas a glint of hope of grabbing the win they needed.
But Sherwin Stowers quickly extinguished that faint chance with Counties' sixth, and late tries from Dan Pryor and Matt Wright proved nothing more than consolation.
Northland 31 (Malupo 2, Carpenter, Pryor, Wright tries; Wright 3 cons)
Counties Manukau 44 (Lee-Lo, Nanai-Williams 2, Talaese, Nabou, Stowers, tries; Nanai-Williams 4 cons, 2 pens)