Counties-Manukau 30 Southland 9
Southland were given an inhospitable welcome to the ITM Cup championship when receiving a beating by a Counties-Manukau team guaranteed to entertain this season.
Tana Umaga's Counties have plenty of backline firepower in the form of sevens experts Sherwin Stowers and Frank Halai and fullback Tim Nanai-Williams and it was all on show in a bonus point victory at EcoLight Stadium in Pukekohe today.
Southland, demoted from the premiership last season after finishing last of seven, and featuring vast experience in the form of Jamie Mackintosh, Jason Rutledge, Josh Bekhuis and Jimmy Cowan, looked stunned by the onslaught.
Umaga's backs weren't the only ones firing the bullets - the former All Blacks centre has plenty of artillery up front too. Loosehead prop Simon Lemalu threatened to steal the limelight with an intercept try in the second half which eased the score to 25-9 and took the match away from Southland.
It was a moment Rutledge, who was celebrating becoming the most capped Southland player when overtaking Gerald Dermody to play his 121st match for the province, will want to forget.
With quick ball and a five-on-two overlap in his own half, Rutledge threw the pass which Lemalu popped up with his right hand, gathered and sprinted more than 30m to score. The Southland hooker was substituted soon after.
Counties second-five Bundee Aki scored the bonus point try in the final minutes and it was a cracker, a 60m run followed by a perfectly timed dive for the corner.
Fritz Lee, another excellent player, scored the opening two tries for Counties, the No 8 going over from short range, and Southland could reply only with penalties from Scott Eade.
Chiefs hooker Mahonri Schwalger, an excellent signing from Taranaki, joined the fray in the second half to further boost a Counties side rich on talent and form. With big Kenyan-born Bulls recruit Daniel Adongo making his debut in New Zealand rugby - he can play loose forward but slotted into lock against Southland - it is clear they will be a handful this season.
Southland, on the other hand, struggled for inspiration. They are a side more suited to the heavy track of Rugby Park in Invercargill, but face a trip to Wellington in the weekend before they get an opportunity to play at home, a grudge match against Otago.
Counties next travel to Napier to play a Hawkes Bay team which just failed in their comeback against Auckland.
Counties-Manukau 30 (Fritz Lee 2, Simon Lemalu, Bundee Aki tries; Baden Kerr 2 pens, 2 cons). Southland 9 (Scott Eade 3 pens).