Rugby: Canterbury hold their nerve as rivals falter

Sonny Bill Williams of Canterbury is tackled. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams of Canterbury is tackled. Photo / Getty Images

Normally the sight of Canterbury going top of rugby's national provincial championship brings groans from the rest of the country.

Given what the earthquake-struck province has endured this weekend it's hard to begrudge them some cheer, no matter how insignificant in the scheme of things.

It wasn't vintage Canterbury but their 28-9 home defeat of Bay of Plenty on Friday night saw the two-time defending champions leapfrog from fourth to first, with the three leading teams heading into round six all losing.

The highlight of an ordinary spectacle was a solid debut off the bench of former rugby league star Sonny Bill Williams, who showed glimpses of the raw talent that has caught the eye of the All Blacks selectors.

They are a point clear of former leaders Southland, who were knocked off their perch by Northland in the match of the round at Whangarei on Saturday.

Northland somehow conjured a 33-22 win despite having to make 132 tackles to Southland's 54, outlining the statistical dominance enjoyed by the visitors which couldn't be translated into points.

Close range tries to visiting props Jamie Mackintosh (two) and Chris King were eclipsed by four Northland efforts which were far more pleasing on the eye.

Gun outside backs Rene Ranger and Jared Payne were at the heart of the Northland counter-attacking style, captain Payne crossing twice while fringe All Black Ranger seemed unstoppable at times.

"The backs that we've got, we're going to throw it around. If we get a sniff, we're going to try to make the most of it," Payne told Sky Sport.

"We've been seeking an 80-minute performance all year and I think we got that.

"We were pretty average [on defence] against Wellington last week and they beat us. Today it must have been a bit better and we didn't let Southland back in."

Southland captain Mackintosh, at the forefront of a dominant pack effort, was left to reflect on the long trip south and a lift in output for the Ranfurly Shield defence against North Harbour.

"It was pretty frustrating but they [Northland] have got some great attacking weapons," he said.

"They went the length of the field and that cost us in the end."

Wellington and Counties Manukau round out the top four behind Southland, with one point back to Auckland, Taranaki and Waikato locked in fifth. Just six points separate the top eight teams.

The boilover of the round was Manawatu's 36-24 toppling of Wellington in Palmerston North, a bonus point-earning performance which breathes life into a campaign which appeared doomed after five losses.

It was their first competition defeat of Wellington since 1982, based around a desire at the breakdown which wasn't well handled by a listless Wellington side struggling for consistency.

Edging closer to their best yesterday were Auckland, who kicked the in-form Taranaki off Eden Park 27-13.

Waikato ensured they are among the frontrunners with a four-try defeat of North Harbour in Albany last night, with midfield backs Christian Leali'ifano and Save Tokula providing the cutting edge.

The round opened on Thursday with Counties Manukau returning to the winner's circle courtesy of a 23-3 home defeat of Tasman and finished with Otago's 17-16 defeat of lowly Hawkes Bay in Dunedin.

- NZPA

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