Hawkes Bay 3
Hawkes Bay headed south last night with hopes high, but ran into a relentless red and black machine.
The eventual outcome became obvious from the moment Stephen Brett crossed for Canterbury's third try early in the second half. From there, there was no comeback for the brave visitors.
Canterbury will host the final next weekend, no matter the outcome of the second semifinal between Wellington and Southland in the capital tonight.
Hawkes Bay, now beaten in three Air New Zealand Cup semifinals in as many years, never gave up, but part of the defending champions impressive reputation - doubling up as the Crusaders in the Super 14 for that matter - is based on the ability to wrest the initiative and hold it, to grab their opportunities when they were on offer.
Their scrum was outstanding, they had strong lineout work from No 8 Nusi Manu and Isaac Ross, and Brett had a fine night at first five-eighths.
Hawkes Bay's kicking became predictable, Canterbury read it like a card shark playing with his own deck, and the visitors' plan B simply wasn't good enough.
If Canterbury's battle plan was to hit Hawkes Bay hard, rattle them early, it came within one pass of coming off spectacularly.
From the kickoff, Canterbury regained possession, went right, wing Sean Maitland made ground but with the tryline begging, flanker Michael Paterson couldn't hold the ball.
Hawkes Bay weren't fazed. Indeed they had their chances in both halves, only to have them stymied by various means at a late moment.
Canterbury did go ahead after 10 minutes, when Hawkes Bay fullback Israel Dagg couldn't hold an expertly-weighted high kick from Brett.
Canterbury halfback Tyson Keats ran right and flung a fine pass wide to lock Sam Whitelock who galloped 26m to the corner. Brett added an excellent conversion.
With No 8 Thomas Waldrom bashing into and through Canterbury tacklers, and his colleagues up in support, Hawkes Bay didn't lack for opportunities.
However Canterbury's defensive reputation isn't an urban rugby myth, but Hawkes Bay kept hammering in much the manner of the oompah band thumping away in the background at AMI Stadium.
First five-eighths Matt Berquist made a break, which wasn't capitalised on; hooker Hika Elliot and prop Sona Taumalolo worked a nifty front lineout move, which Elliot wasted with an ill-judged kick ahead.
The defending champion's counter-attacking threat was seen to good effect through fullback Colin Slade and lock Ross showed up strongly round the park.
Berquist got Hawkes Bay on the board with a penalty five minutes before halftime before Canterbury dealt a huge blow.
Hawkes Bay won a lineout near their own 22, but Paterson blocked halfback Chris Eaton's clearing kick, then slipped the pass to Ross, who got to the righthand corner.
All the important numbers at halftime favoured Hawkes Bay. Their problem had been not making use of them. Canterbury, by contrast, made it count whenever they got into the danger zone.
Taumalolo dodged a bullet early in the second half, upending Slade in a dangerous tackle. He got away with a lecture from White.
The loss of captain Jason Shoemark at the interval with a gastric complaint did Hawkes Bay no favours and the Magpies had to work overtime as Canterbury pressed hard for a try in the minutes after the resumption.
They were resolute, then pressed themselves. But prop Clint Newland knocked on at a ruck on Canterbury's 22, and three passes later Maitland was sprinting clear. Brett, supporting inside, took the final pass for a fine, ultimately decisive try.
Canterbury 20 (S. Whitelock, I. Ross, S. Brett tries; S. Brett pen, con)
Hawkes Bay 3 (M. Berquist pen). HT: 12-3