Counties Manukau 28
Ranfurly Shield holders are supposed to be vulnerable after they lift the Log o' Wood. A distracted air, sloppy play and unforced errors are the usual stuff of matches played after a big game - and both sides obliged in this encounter.
Waikato mostly looked like what they were - a side who had played just three days ago and who'd plugged in some second-stringers. An awkward breeze blowing stiffly crossfield did not help and Counties somehow caught the disease and made mistakes of their own; mis-directed passes, knock-ons and inaccuracy were common to both teams.
But Waikato managed something extremely useful for Shield holders - the ability to finish a game strongly and unanswerably.
It was a fine comeback as Counties, sparked by new Chiefs midfielder Bundee Aki, looked to have taken the game at 25-10 up. But two tries to threatening Waikato centre Save Tokula turned the match.
Waikato had looked the stronger early on, particularly through the accuracy and drive of loose trio of captain Alex Bradley, the hard working Rory Grice and Jono Armstrong. Former All Black Brendon Leonard impressed with his kicking for position.
But both sides couldn't quite connect internally. Offloads were offhand, literally, passes went to grass rather than hand, turnovers were more like the apple variety, rather than the hard-won. It all looked like a messy aftermath to Waikato's 46-10 Shield triumph earlier this week.
Waikato went behind 8-0 when they mounted an attack in the midfield, big second five-eighths Joe Perawiti attempting to offload in the tackle. The ball missed its target, bounced on its point and was snapped up by Counties' midfielder Rey Lee-Lo who put fast feet man Sherwin Stowers away for a 60m run to the corner.
Waikato finally made the connection with themselves just before halftime. The wide passes stuck for once and winger Joe Webber wriggled between two defenders to score and give Waikato a 10-8 lead at the break.
Counties did a lot of hard work, forcing themselves into the Waikato half, where they usually promptly turned the ball over. They fared far better living off Waikato's mistakes - as they did with Stowers' touchdown - and livewire fullback Tim Nanai-Williams produced a 14-point score the same way.
Leonard speared through from a scrum, a clever stab-kick bobbled and bounced and he was about to claim the ball for what would surely have been a Waikato try (even though there was still a distance to go to the goal-line; few Counties defenders were in coo-ee). But Nanai-Williams ghosted in, snatched away the ball and Leonard's glory, outpaced Bradley, sidestepped Grice - and then galloped happily away for the try, wrong-footing the whole Waikato team.
Counties found their feet after that (and their hands) although Lee-Lo put down a pass with the line open. Second-five Aki solved the problem by slicing through himself and then scored a second after a Waikato ball went down (again). Aki scooted round the outside of a prop from the resulting ruck and ran 50m to score in the corner.
It looked grim for Waikato but, because the kicks weren't going over in the pesky breeze, they were not out of it at 25-10. Talented fullback Trent Renata added a penalty and Waikato finally mounted an attack that didn't break down. Big prop Loni Uhila set it up with a crunching run, centre Tokula produced an offload that stuck and he finished the try after several quick pairs of Waikato hands beat the defenders. That made it 25-18 but replacement back Ray Laulala kicked a pressure penalty to restore Counties' 10-point lead.
Tokula scored again after Waikato stormed back on attack after a killer run from Grice, the passes sticking, the cool finally kept. Lock Anthony Wise won the day with a try from a ruck on the line that came from undeniable pressure. It was a win that will do their confidence as Shield holders no end of good.
Counties Manukau 28 (S. Stowers, T. Nanai-Williams, B. Aki 2 tries; Nanai-Williams con, pen; R. Laulala pen), Waikato 32 (J. Webber, S. Tokula 2. A. Wise tries; T. Renata 3 cons, 2 pens). Halftime: 8-10.By Paul Lewis of the Herald on Sunday