Rugby: Counties win promotion

By Kris Shannon

Rey Lee Lo of Counties Manukau is tackled during the ITM Cup Championship Final match between Counties Manukau and Otago. Photo / Getty Images.
Rey Lee Lo of Counties Manukau is tackled during the ITM Cup Championship Final match between Counties Manukau and Otago. Photo / Getty Images.

Counties Manukau 41
Otago 16

After playing like a Premiership team for much of the season, Counties Manukau were tonight rewarded for their efforts with promotion to the top flight of the ITM Cup for the first time.

The Steelers capped a campaign filled with wild wins and free-flowing backline moves by beating Otago 41-16 in the Championship final in Pukekohe.

The win will see Counties replace Hawkes Bay in the seven-team top tier for 2013, where they will test their mettle against several of the sides they upset en route to top spot in the Championship.

The victory also gives the union their first piece of silverware since wining the old second division in 1993 - a memorable achievement in Counties great Tana Umaga's first year of fulltime coaching.

Umaga's team have made a name for themselves this season with some sparkling attacking play seeing them score four or more tries in nine of 12 matches. They did so again tonight, scoring five tries to one to see off the southerners.

Perhaps not quite as convincing as their 43-12 win over Otago in September, the Steelers never looked in serious trouble tonight and it always seemed a matter of when, not if, their attack would take hold of the match.

That certainly looked the case in the opening moments, with any nerves settled after three minutes when Counties halfback August Pulu opened the scoring with the latest display of silky backline play from the Steelers.

Sherwin Stowers - having an impressive season but still without a Super Rugby contract - again showed his ability by beating Marshall Suckling's tackle and bursting down the left sideline before firing an inside pass for Pulu to cross.

It didn't take long, though, for Otago's forwards to counter Counties' backs. The southerners were hoping their three returning All Blacks would prove the difference and Adam Thompson quickly made his impact felt, coming off the back of a big rolling maul to burrow over the line and level the score at 10.

Otago came agonisingly close to adding a second but Suckling's would-be try was negated by a knock-on. From the resulting scrum, however, the visitors' forward pack reaffirmed their dominance and destroyed the home scrum to earn a penalty and push ahead.

But the Counties forwards weren't about to surrender on their own track and, after a few phases of play deep in Otago territory, Mark Selwyn spotted a huge hole to dot down between the posts.

Another Baden Kerr penalty extended his side's lead to seven at the break, with Umaga probably the happier coach given both sides' propensity to spread the ball - an area in which Counties clearly excel.

That theme from the first half was absent early in the second spell as Glenn Dickson's third penalty reduced the deficit to four, but Counties refused to remain subdued for long.

After Pulu spilled the ball to spoil some sustained possession, he made amends when some superb handling from several Steelers backs freed him down the right sideline to cross in the corner for his second.

Kerr then missed a penalty which could have clinched it, but Tim Nanai-Williams soon made sure - appropriately, with another scintillating move from deep inside their own half - before David Bason added some late gloss.

Counties Manukau 41 (Pulu 2, Selwyn, Nanai-Williams tries; Kerr 2 pens, 5 cons)

Otago 16 (Thompson try; Dickson 3 pens, con)

HT: 20-13

- APNZ

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