Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Counties retain Shield

Fritz Lee of Counties runs in his try. Photo / Getty Images
Fritz Lee of Counties runs in his try. Photo / Getty Images

Counties 25
Southland 7

Spud country is also the land of the Ranfurly Shield.

Counties retained the nation's most famous rugby trophy tonight, ticked over the mounting profits in the union bank account and set their sights on the ITM Cup playoffs.

They have generated a new wave of enthusiasm around the Bombay Hills with their style, new players and coaching ingenuity under Tana Umaga. Crowds have built at EcoLight Stadium in Pukekohe as the local community has got in behind the Steelers. They delivered again last night in conditions which were testing with rain and shifting winds proving tricky.

Counties took a strong grip on the game with some classy counter-attack in the first half when they fastened on to Southland mistakes and punished the visitors. Southland had enough possession but their handling mistakes and general errors took a toll.

They let several high kicks bounce and looked diffident early as Counties lock Ronald Raaymakers rode some sketchy defence to score from general play.

Southland were still out of sorts as they watched Maama Vaipulu storm through a huge channel in midfield to create one try for his captain Fritz Lee before fullback Ahsee Tuala finished another rollicking movement. That gave Counties a handy 22-0 lead at the break but they had to deliver a concerted, tidy game plan for the final 40 minutes as they played into an escalating wind.

They had to hold their discipline too as Southland kicked to several 5m lineout drives. There was enough resilience and guile from men like Lee, Raaymakers, Adam Cathcart and Hika Elliot to corral the defence or find a turnover for Baden Kerr to kick clear.

Southland kept pressing and opting for lineouts from penalty choices and when they moved the ball wide, fullback Robbie Robinson drove at the line. The video referee said his footage was inconclusive but referee Mike Fraser felt a try had been scored. That gave Southland the whiff of a final quarter comeback as they upped their inquiries.

There was some bend but little break in the Steelers as they stayed solid, stood tough alongside each other with the necessary grit for this third and last defence this year.

Eventually they worked downfield far enough to earn a penalty and Kerr piloted the difficult chance the necessary 35m through the target.

Their spirit stayed strong even with that significant lead. Visiting five eighths Marty McKenzie looked as though he must score in the corner but a great defensive read denied him a consolation touchdown.

It was a win for heart and determination and a reward for a season where Counties have grown in their work. They still have more to achieve but their supporters are saluting a year which is already extra special in Counties sporting folklore.

Attitude and a week off, said Lee, had given the side belief for their final defence and their tilt at the playoffs.

Counties 25 (R Raaymakers, F Lee, A Tuala tries; B Kerr 2 con, 2 pen
Southland 7 ( R Robinson, try; S Eade con).HT: 22-0

- NZ Herald

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