Counties Manukau 43
Counties-Manukau have underlined their status as the team to beat in this year's ITM Cup Championship with a 43-12 thrashing of Otago at Ecolight stadium in Pukekohe tonight.
Tana Umaga's table topping side produced another superb performance to outclass third-placed Otago and achieve their fourth win from five games, and almost secure a semi-final spot in the process.
Otago fought back in phases, but couldn't capitalise on their periods of dominance and will be disappointed they couldn't convert a number of promising attacks.
But in the end Counties were just too good; they were staunch in defence and devastating in attack - as they have been all year.
They showed tremendous resolve in fighting off some spirited Otago attacks, but were also clinical going forward with Sherwin Stowers, Frank Halai and David Bason all benefitting from a dangerous attacking unit.
Counties lead the Championship in both attack and defence - and Umaga should be credited for finding just the right balance of showmanship and sturdiness.
The home side's rich vein of form continued in the third minute, when they worked through 13 phases of play, grinding the Otago defence down before spreading the ball to Stowers to touch down.
Counties and Otago then traded two penalties each in a scrappy 20 minute period, where scrums, knock-ons and Japanese referee Akihisa Aso's whistle dominated play.
Counties first-five Baden Kerr continued his fine form of 2012, excelling in his role of first receiver and pivot and supplying quality to Stowers, Halai and Tim Nanai-Williams - one of the most talented backlines you are likely to find at this level.
But Otago were not about to lie down and showed glimpses of the steely nerve and solid defence that helped them grind out a 15-10 win in difficult conditions over Southland last week.
Otago generated 13 phases of their own late in the second half, but some aggressive Counties defending, and lackluster decision-making from the Southerners meant they had to settle for another Hayden Parker penalty to close the gap to one point at halftime.
After the break Counties came out flying and added a David Bason try and two Kerr penalties to well and truly shift the momentum.
Counties never looked back, and combined communication, timing and speed to open the Otago defence on a number of occasions, resulting in a try for Halai and a bonus point try for Stowers.
Stand-in captain Adam Cathcart sealed the win in the last minute, scoring a try to complete a rout of 30 un-answered points for the home side.
Counties 43 (S Stowers 2, D Bason, F Halai, A Cathcart tries; B Kerr 3 con; B Kerr 4 pen) Otago 12 (H Parker 4 pen) Halftime 13-12