Otago surprise Canterbury 

By Wynne Gray

Otago 37 Canterbury 22

Otago mocked Canterbury's regal NPC reign and eclipsed their upset of a fortnight ago.

In a staggering form reversal in Christchurch last night, Otago scored four tries in the final quarter to complete the biggest boilover of the NPC season and set up a final next Saturday against either Auckland at Eden Park or North Harbour at Albany.

Instead of the defending champions' galaxy of stars taking the heat and surging to the finish it was Otago, playing with the voracity of a ravenous pack of dogs who upped the intensity.

Their remarkable victory enhanced the 24-19 round robin upset against Canterbury at Carisbrook and has given Otago a chance to shoot for their first NPC crown since 1998.

"I don't know whether I'm real tired or just amazed by our performance out there," said Otago captain Craig Newby.

"Though we beat them two weeks ago we knew they'd be even tougher tonight. But it was an unbelievable performance from our guys. I mean five tries - you wouldn't dream it would happen at Jade Stadium."

Canterbury captain Reuben Thorne said Otago deserved the victory.

"They were really hungrier than us, especially in the first half because we couldn't get anything going. In the second half they just forced us into a lot of errors and capitalised on them," he said.

As most of the big-name Canterbury players - with the exception of Richie McCaw - withered in the opening semifinal, it was Newby, Tom Donnelly, Josh Blackie, Anton Oliver, Chris Smylie and Seilala Mapusua who took centre stage.

Canterbury made a rollicking start but it was Otago who finished with the bombshell burst and a comprehensive triumph.

The defending titleholders clicked into their early routines, switching the attack across the width of the park and using Mose Tuiali'i to barge forward when they went through the middle.

For all their style though, there was no reward. And just as quickly this semifinal changed.

Frustrated by the solid Otago defence, Canterbury wing Caleb Ralph tried an attacking chip kick and watched as Otago halfback Smylie gathered, beat two defenders with his step and sprinted 45m for the opening try.

It was a superb counter from Smylie capped by a fine sideline conversion from Nick Evans. More than that, it gave Otago the conviction they needed.

Otago smacked into the rucks and mauls, bringing some real rhythm to their play while Canterbury lost their momentum.

Evans fluffed a close penalty while Blackie and Chris King were then held up very close to the Canterbury tryline. It seemed the champions might have weathered the onslaught until they conceded a penalty and Evans goaled.

Canterbury reputations were showing more dents than a panelbeating shop and they could not generate the heat they had for their final Ranfurly Shield defence last week.

They avoided a first half shutout only when Daniel Carter goaled a 41m penalty three minutes before halftime.

After such an ordinary opening spell, Canterbury coach Aussie McLean might have been heard by most of the disappointing 15,000 crowd as he berated his side during the break. There was no immediate on-field response.

But they had some serious fortune. As they struggled to repel a series of Otago moves they were able to convince the TMO and referee Steve Walsh that Blackie had not grounded the ball strongly enough for a try.

Compounding their ill-luck, Otago then knocked on when trying to run the ball out of their 22 and Ben Blair scored from the subsequent scrum.

They turned the ball over soon after and McCaw recovered Scott Hamilton's grubber to score. From a position of despair, Canterbury were 15-13 ahead with the final quarter to run. Normal order, it seemed was about to resume.

However it was Otago who delivered. When the pressure came on, the underdogs bayed and the champions wilted.

Otago 37 (C. Smylie 2, C. Newby, C. Clare, J. Blackie tries; N. Evans, 3 con, 2 pen)

Canterbury 22 (B. Blair, R. McCaw, S. Hamilton, tries; .D Carter, 2 con, pen).

HT: 10-13

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