Manawatu halfback Aaron Smith was pivotal as Northland were repulsed in an ITM Cup Championship match at Palmerston North yesterday.
The livewire No 9 scored one try, had a leading hand in another, pulled off a try-saving tackle and generally made a nuisance of himself as Manawatu prevailed 30-22, their first win over Northland since 1993.
They thoroughly deserved the result, with Smith's contribution undeniable as his quick thinking saw Manawatu sneak into a 23-22 lead 15 minutes from fulltime.
A penalty near the tryline saw Smith opt for a quick tap to earn himself a try which was built on 10 minutes later when flanker Callum Gibbins also crossed from close range after he extracted himself from a ruck.
Manawatu's winning margin could have been more flattering but for a magnificent piece of defence from Northland wing Bryce Heem, which denied his opposite Asaeli Tikoirotuma a try just two minutes after Smith's touchdown.
Heem chased Tikoirotuma for 60m after the Northland player pulled off a fortuitous intercept and he seemed destined to score, only to lose the ball in the act of diving for the line when Heem lunged desperately at him.
Earlier, nothing separated the teams at halftime when two tries apiece saw the scores locked at 15-15.
Northland had the better of the early exchanges before Manawatu's sparky backs came into their own midway through the spell.
Northland had to wait 14 minutes for their first try, to fullback Jared Payne, after he toed ahead a clever grubber kick from Aaron Bancroft before benefiting from a fortunate touch in the dead ball area.
Manawatu responded 12 minutes later through a fine team try as a patient build-up and accurate recycling of the ball was rewarded when space was created for Tikoirotuma to cross in the right-hand corner.
The home side landed another blow when centre Johnny Leota scored thanks to a well-weighted cut-out pass from Smith.
By this stage, Manawatu were threatening to dominate but Northland dragged themselves level in the 38th minute when hard-working No 8 Cam Eyre detached from a lineout drive to crash over the line. Northland had cause to rue their luck in the first half as they were prevented from scoring further tries.
Smith pulled off a wonderful cover tackle on Heem inside the 22 when the long-striding wing busted through the middle, then Tikoirotuma deflected a pass intended for Lachie Munro, who had the line at his mercy following a strong run from lock Marty Veale.
That pattern continued within a minute of the resumption but this time Northland centre Rene Ranger was the culprit when he failed to ground the ball properly after slicing through the Manawatu defence.
Manawatu 30 (A. Tikoirotuma, J. Leota, A. Smith, C. Gibbins tries; A. Cruden 2 pens, 2 cons) Northland 22 (J. Payne, C. Eyre, L. Munro tries; Munro pen, 2 cons). Halftime: 15-15.