Waikato were given a real scare but managed to see off Northland at Waikato Stadium tonight to retain the Ranfurly Shield for another week.
The holders withstood a fierce challenge from a fired-up and frisky Northland side in the first week of the ITM Cup, winning 31-22 in a clash closer than the scoreboard indicated.
On another day, one in which they possessed a greater attacking edge, Northland may have delighted their large contingent of supporters who came down State Highway 1 determined to take the Shield home with them.
But Waikato shook off their Super Rugby hangover to hold off the spirited visitors, enduring an anxious final 20 minutes as Northland staged a second-half fightback.
Waikato comfortably saw off challenges from Horowhenua-Kapiti and East Coast during the pre-season but, with only Toby Smith returning to duty from the Chiefs team which retained the Super 15 title, the holders appeared ripe for the picking.
But they overcame a shaky set piece - with a forward pack featuring four playing their first game for the province - courtesy of an impressive rearguard defence which bent but rarely broke.
"There was a bit of talk on Facebook and on the radio that they were bringing a few people down in buses," said Waikato flanker and try-scorer Rory Grice. "We knew they were coming down to take it off us, so we had to get up and smash them."
They certainly did on defensively in the first half, leaving Northland to head to the sheds with only three penalties to their name. Waikato were far more clinical when given a sniff and one of their first forays on attack ended with Grice the benefactor of extra numbers to the right.
It came against the run of play and, after Trent Renata converted, Northland were soon back on attack. Unsurprisingly, Rene Ranger was at the heart of much of Northland's positive play, with only a huge hit from opposite number Save Tokula preventing him from teeing up a reply.
"We knew he was going to be a threat because he always is," Grice said. "Especially on defence as well, he turns it over a lot. So we tried to keep him out of the game."
Ranger was involved again as Waikato scored their second. His poor clearing kick went straight to Grice and, after he began a counter-attack, Joe Webber darted down the right wing to cross untouched.
After an opening half of missed opportunities, Northland began the second spell determined to make amends. And it took only one minute for Sonatane Takulua to go under the posts, after Jake Paringatai came off the back of a scrum and put the halfback through a gaping hole.
The deficit was down to two and, after the sides traded penalties, both were guilty of blowing opportunities to apply real pressure as errors came to the fore. But Smith soon eased his side's nerves, burrowing over in the corner to clinch the game and put the
Shield on the line when Otago visits next week.
Waikato 31 (Grice, Webber, Smith tries; Renata 4 pens, 2 cons)
Northland 22 (Takulua try; Seymour 5 pens, con)