Rugby: Canterbury secure title

Tom Taylor (C) of Canterbury celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the ITM Cup final match between Canterbury and Auckland. Photo / Getty Images.
Tom Taylor (C) of Canterbury celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the ITM Cup final match between Canterbury and Auckland. Photo / Getty Images.

Canterbury 31
Auckland 18

Classic Finals football enabled Canterbury to secure their fifth consecutive championship tonight. They sucked up pressure, rode their luck, struck when they had the chance and then harried Auckland into chasing the game and making mistakes.

As a template for how to handle the big occasion - this was perfect.

Auckland were lively and threatening for much of the first half and for periods of the second. They had the scrum battle sewn-up and the skill level in the forwards in the forwards to pass out the tackle and build momentum and open space.

But they couldn't dominate on the scoreboard because Canterbury made big plays at critical times. They also defended particularly well and for all Auckland's endeavour, they never really managed to open up their opponents the way Canterbury could split them. Nor could Auckland emulate Canterbury's clinical strikes.

They didn't have an abundance of opportunities, but the few they made they finished and that made all the difference.

The killer score came with 18 minutes to go when Andy Ellis pulled off one of the great steals of the season when he managed, in full view of the referee, to step over a ruck and pinch a ball when Auckland were only a few metres short and all set for a wide attack.

The ball was hoofed downfield, Charles Piutau got caught and turned over trying to run it out and in the blink of an eye, Telusa Veainu was over in the corner to make it 31-13.

That was the story of the night really: Auckland would create something promising only to be thwarted and for Canterbury to respond with thrilling and effective counter attacks.

It made for an engaging contest at least. It has been apparent for most of the season that the gulf between ITM Cup and Super Rugby is growing. But finally, with the two best teams in the country _ bolstered by a handful of returning and hopeful All Blacks _ putting it all out there, there was something approximating a decent game of rugby on show.

The intensity was up in the physical exchanges and there was an obvious desire in the scrums. Charlie Faumuina came off the bench at half-time and packed down against his fellow All Black Wyatt Crockett.

There was spice and feeling in those exchanges with the Aucklander winning the battle by a length and then some: no wonder the All Blacks think he has a big future _ he made a serious impact.

The hard part for Auckland was converting that pressure into points. Canterbury were able to scramble and defend well to keep themselves in business and they could always rely on Luke Whitelock and Robbie Fruean to hammer over the gainline and get them going forward.

It was also noticeable that the skill-level noticeably jumped.

Some of Auckland's offloading in the contact was impressive and their ability to do so allowed them to build continuity and find space.

Having seen how much mileage Taranaki made last week when they popped the ball between the big men and then shifted wide in the backs, Auckland were clearly looking to try something similar.

Maybe it would have all turned out differently for them had they built the lead they probably deserved in the first half. They had Canterbury a bit rattled after 35 minutes and were leading 13-10 _ but looking imminently capable of building on that.

But instead Auckland were left bemused at the way the last five minutes of the first half panned out. A neat move saw them create a four-on-one overlap and a try was all but certain but for the illegal intervention from Veainu.

His deliberate knock-on saw him pick up a yellow card and with a man advantage and plenty of momentum behind them, Auckland were hoping to strike before the break to crank the pressure.

Instead, they lost the ball after a sloppy lineout saw the ball go loose. George Whitelock pounced and then Ryan Crotty broke through the midfield to set up Tom Taylor for his second try.

It was a game-changer _ one of those moments where the balance of power shifted. Auckland ended up conceding another penalty after half-time: they wanted to take advantage of the numerical imbalance and yet didn't score while Canterbury picked up eight points.

Taylor actually kicked another penalty just after Veainu returned and Auckland, from being on the cusp of building a commanding lead, found themselves chasing the game.Tyler Bleyendaal dropped a long range goal and then Veainu struck all in quick succession and that was the heart ripped out of Auckland and a record fifth successive title for Canterbury.

Canterbury 31 (T. Taylor (2), T. Veainu tries; T. Taylor 2 cons, 3 pens; T. Bleyendaal DG)

Auckland 18 (H. Parkes, L. Visinia tries; G. Anscombe con, 2 pens)

- Herald on Sunday

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