Canterbury 51, Taranaki 27
(27-27 after full time)
Back at the beginning of the ITM Cup, things looked good for Taranaki. They had the Ranfurly Shield, they had a good pack, smart backs, depth in their playing roster and hopes of their best season since Ferdinand The Bull was just a glint in the eye of the artificial inseminator.
When it went wrong - the Shield lost to a rampant Waikato - most wrote them off, figuring they had fallen foul of the pressure-cooker compression of the ITM Cup format and the way momentum can leak out of a side like air from a punctured rugby ball.
They rather confirmed that by losing to Wellington, maintaining their record of never having beaten that team in Wellington in 36 years of trying. They had never beaten Canterbury in Christchurch in the same period - and, really, the only people who expected them to could be safely dismissed as diehard Taranaki fans who must have started drinking at breakfast.
But they came within a fingernail of a one of the giant upsets in New Zealand provincial rugby history.
Quite how they did it was almost a mystery. One minute Canterbury looked to be elegantly working their way past the determined Taranaki outfit. The next, they were under assault from a Taranaki team who suddenly stepped up the pace, held onto the ball and started carving large holes in Canterbury's defence and confidence.
Taranaki looked to have made a mistake in selection. The first problem probably came with selection. Coach Colin Cooper chose four locks - Craig Clarke, Jason Eaton and, at loose forward, Jarrad Hoeata and James Broadhurst. The latter's role at No 6 was exposed halfway through the first half when livewire Canterbury fullback Johnny McNicholl sidestepped him and set up a try to flanker Matt Todd with a clean line-break.
It was just reward for Todd who had sparked Canterbury's first try when he burgled a ball from a Taranaki drive out of defence, big lock Dominic Bird burst on and passed inside to prop Wyatt Crockett for the try.
Taranaki had earlier taken a surprise lead when second five-eighths James Marshall handled twice in a flowing movement that rattled the red-and-blacks. Marshall got the try when first five-eighths Beauden Barrett took on the scrambling defence and beat it with a smart inside ball.
Taranaki worked hard but - even with four locks or perhaps because of it - they couldn't match Canterbury at the breakdown or with the ball in hand. Mobility, raids on the ball by Todd, ball security, charges by No 8 Luke Whitelock and prop Paea Fa'aunua and some dangerous running by McNicholl and winger Telusa Veainu worried Taranaki consistently and spelled the difference. So did a marvellous all-action, 100-minute game from halfback Andy Ellis.
Barrett kept them in it with his guiding play (when Taranaki could get the ball) though his goalkicking could have won the match in conventional time.
But somehow, out of stoic defence, Taranaki ground their way to the Canterbury line for a try to Eaton. It was payback by Broadhurst who, even though shown up by McNicholl earlier, charged around to good effect. It was his drive for a near-try that set up Eaton's score.
At 18-17 at halftime, the 'Naki were still in it - though few could explain why.
Canterbury then knuckled down. They put the squeeze on Taranaki and second five Tom Taylor (17 points in the match) kept knocking over the penalties.
At 27-17, the season was slipping away. Taranaki needed something special and they responded with their best period of the match, playing at pace, holding onto the ball and with big winger Waisake Naholo and halfback Chris Smyllie prominent, both helping to engineer an undeniable try to flanker Chris Walker.
They kept coming - and then the unthinkable. Canterbury, the team that knows how to win the close ones, left a hole the size of New Plymouth in the backline and Barrett shot into it, sparking a try to repacement winger Seta Tamanivalu. Barrett couldn't kick the conversion, Tyler Bleyendaal couldn't kick the last-minute drop goal and they headed into extra time locked at 27-27.
It was a bridge too far for the 'Naki. Canterbury cracked it. Taranaki just cracked. Canterbury scored 24 points in the 20 minutes of extra time. Crockett smashed over for another try and then another jinking run by Veainu cut Taranaki apart. George Whitelock scored from that to make it safe. Jordan Taufua added another.
Another ITM Cup title beckons - as long as they don't strike an opponent who plays like Taranaki did.
Canterbury 51 (W. Crockett 2, M. Todd, G. Whitelock, J. Taufua tries; T. Taylor con, 5 pen; T. Bleyendaal 3 con, pen)
Taranaki 27 (J. Marshall, J. Eaton, C. Walker, S. Tamanivalu tries; B. Barrett 2 con, pen).