Rugby: Northland thump hapless Wellington

By Nick Edlin

Wellington coach Chris Boyd. Photo / Getty Images
Wellington coach Chris Boyd. Photo / Getty Images

Northland 35
Wellington 5

A gorgeous afternoon in Whangarei delivered two salutary lessons: statistics don't win rugby games, and Wellington are in crisis.

The Lions - last year's beaten finalists - were one of the fancied outfits going into this ITM Cup, but pre-season injuries and last week's loss to Waikato raised some doubts about Chris Boyd's men.

So a sunny day, a hard deck, and second-tier championship opposition should have provided all the conditions Wellington needed to get their season back on track. But Northland had different ideas.

The first half was the perfect riposte to all those Moneyball evangelists who preach rugby by numbers. At the end of the first stanza, Wellington had clocked 65 per cent posession and the greater share of territory but only had a doughnut to show for it.

Northland, on the other hand, had racked up 15 points from doing little more than under-12s basics: making tackles, catching passes, running straight, and taking opportunities when they presented themselves.

Fijian flyer Jone Macilai was the beneficiary of Northland's patient approach, which saw them successfully spoil Wellington ball and sweat on mistakes. Of which there were many. Macilai's two first-half tries both came from turnover ball, with Wellington guilty of sloppiness.

The problem was obvious. Wellington, perhaps excited by the dry conditions, came into the contest looking to play with width. First-five James So'oialo - younger brother of former All Black Rodney, and making his long-awaited Wellington debut - kept running sideways, which set in motion one lateral, aimless movement after another.

Wellington were dominant at scrum time but couldn't buy a trick as soon as the play opened up. The few chances they did create were ultimately spoiled by unforced errors. Left wing Tau Mamea in particular seemed to have left his hands in the capital.

Boyd's halftime message of greater directness was clear in the opening minutes of the second half. Wellington put together a string of phases from one-off running, edging closer and closer to the Taniwha line. But just when it looked as though they could muscle their way back into the contest, they conceded a needless penalty and the chance was gone.

The second half then continued the themes sketched in the first: Wellington maintaining possession and set piece dominance but doing nothing with it; Northland sweating on mistakes and clinically finishing the chances they were handed.

Replacement fullback Warren Dunn finished a stunning end-to-end movement that started with Macilai trapped on his own line by two defenders, wriggling free Houdini-like, and regathering the cheekiest of chip kicks.

By this stage it looked as though Northland were taunting their premiership betters. But they kept their heads, and made sure the game didn't become too loose.

Taniwha blindside Dan Pryor claimed a late double, which was richly deserved given his constant industry and aggression in the tight stuff throughout the match.

Wellington notched a consolation five-pointer to fullback Jason Woodward towards the end, but it would have given Boyd little comfort. His side are at home to Manawatu next week, and they will be desperate to put to rights the awful start they've made to the season.

Northland, meanwhile, have the daunting task of travelling to Christchurch to take on Canterbury. But on this kind of form, Derren Whitcombe's men should have every confidence as they journey southward.

Northland 35: J Macilai 2, W Dunn 1, D Pryor 2 tries; Hawkins 2 pens 2 cons. Wellington 5: J Woodward 1 try. HT: 15-0.

- NZ Herald

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