Upset avoided. Auckland snuck past Counties Manukau by 22 - 20 at Eden Park last night to keep their unbeaten record intact.
A late Tom McCartney try from a lineout move, and a curling sideline conversion from Simon Hickey, saved Auckland's blushes in the battle with their little ITM Cup premiership neighbours in a game that warmed up after a very cold start.
Sometimes rugby at ITM Cup level just doesn't work. Until Counties-Manukau launched some terrific attack in the final two minutes of the first half, bringing a try to Frank Halai, the match had bordered on the horrible.
Wet conditions, over eager rookies, error after error, penalties, combinations not honed by the advantages of fully professional preparation, lack of concentration, one particular scrum mess, a comical kick reception mix up from Auckland of Charlie Chaplin proportions...it wasn't a pretty sight.
A sparsely populated stadium of Eden Park's size doesn't help either, giving the players no atmosphere to respond to.
One pretty sight though was the booming goalkicking of Steelers first five-eighths Ki Anufe. He wasn't always on target, but easily cleared the crossbar height from 57 metres, and struck the ball so sweetly that long penalty attempts and a sideline conversion looked like delicate chip shots. Get the radar working and he could be an amazing weapon.
Finally though, some relief. More Auckland absent mindedness, at a kickoff reception, saw Counties Manukau wing Ahsee Tuala launch the first of a series of raids that was met by strong goal line defence initially, but that was eventually broken down on the right as Halai cantered over on halftime.
The visitors' mood would have darkened after halftime when fullback Sherwin Stowers was sin binned for a professional foul and Hickey goaled the penalty, cutting Counties Manukau's lead to 13 - 9. Hickey kept landing the penalties to edge Auckland in front as the game picked up slightly after its very disappointing beginnings.
An inexplicable drop from Stowers while recovering an Auckland kick led to another scrum mess from which Hickey had his first penalty failure, after slipping.
It proved the catalyst for some great hand to hand combat from the Steelers and a frenzied Counties try to Rey Lee-Lo, with captain Fritz Lee pivotal in the build up. Auckland lost halfback Junior Poluleuligaga with a shoulder dislocation.
No echoes of the past
A vacant Eden Park had that hollow sound which didn't help the game...and the bean counters must be nervous.
The Steelers wull have to raise their 80-minute urgency if they are to have a chance of lifting the Ranfurly Shield on Saturday.
Auckland 22 (Tom McCartney try; Simon Hickey 5 pen, con), Counties Manukau 20 (Frank Halai, Rey Lee-Lo tries, Ki Anufe con, 2 pen, Ahsee Tuala con). Halftime: Counties Manukau 13 - 6.