Rugby: Counties continue their roll

By Michael Brown

Baden Kerr. Photo / Getty Images
Baden Kerr. Photo / Getty Images

If there's one thing Tana Umaga never did as a player, it was get rattled when things weren't going his way and his Counties Manukau side followed that approach with a significant win over Manawatu tonight.

They would have been expected to win this match quite comfortably, given their form as Championship leaders with four wins from five games, but for 67 minutes found themselves trailing on the scoreboard.

They lacked the fluency and efficiency that has marked their first games and were perhaps a little complacent given their success but they also came up against a committed and organised Manawatu side.

The home side, in fact, dominated large portions of the match and led 16-3 at the break courtesy of a converted try to wing Willie Paia'aua who rounded off a good move that stretched the Counties defence.

There was always a sense, however, it might not be enough.

Counties went into the match with a points differential of +91, the best of any team in the ITM Cup, and had been held to less than 30 points in only one of their five games.

Even that was a 27-15 defeat of North Harbour.

They have plenty of threats across the field, particularly their backline, and had the potential to get back into the game at any moment. It was just a matter of somehow making it click.

They became increasingly frustrated by their inability to do that, and conceded a number of needless penalties which interrupted their flow, but things started to change in the second spell when they increased the tempo and spread the ball.

Promising second five-eighths Bundee Aki started the ball rolling with a 51st-minute try and Sherwin Stowers followed it up with another in the 62nd minute.

When first five-eighths Baden Kerr sliced through some porous Manawatu defence in the 67th minute, they finally got their noses in front 24-23.

Manawatu refused to go away, even after Aki scored his second with three minutes on the clock, and scored through Lewis Marshall to narrow the gap to just three points with a minute remaining.

Counties' success this season is perhaps a little overstated. They haven't played any of the big guns from the Premiership and a favourable draw sees them avoid Wellington, Taranaki and Canterbury in crossover games but they are playing some of the best rugby throughout the ITM Cup and will fancy their chances of winning promotion.

It's where Umaga would expect to be.

Manawatu 28 (Willie Paia'aua, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Lewis Marshall tries; Craig Clare 3 pens, con; Jason Emery con) Counties

Manukau 31 (Bundee Aki 2, Sherwin Stowers, Baden Kerr tries; Kerr pen, 4 cons). HT: 16-3.

- APNZ

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