Canterbury's well-drilled cavalry dominated Auckland's army of guerrillas. The teams might have been lacking key All Blacks but it didn't detract from a spirited contest, albeit with blips of flimsy defence. Both teams attacked with flair rather than getting trapped in any 10-man rugby mindset with the onset of semi-finals.
Canterbury's structure at the set piece and juggernaut moving the ball up the field at pace was tough for the visitors to match in what was eventually an seven try to two romp. Their fitness appeared superior. Auckland's sniping runs, use of the field width and raids on the breakdown helped match the five-time defending champions in the first half but they tired early in the second half. Malakai Fekitoa's pass to no-one during an attacking surge was an example. They ended up scrambling.
The platform laid by the Canterbury front row of Joe Moody, Ben Funnell and Nepo Laulala was a triumph. They bruised their opposites for the most part, including two first half tightheads, which sapped their energy around the field.
Auckland could not muster the same impact with a lack of numbers to the breakdown. The sight of tighthead prop Laulala's whooping and clapping of his hands in delight after one scrum was telling.
Afternoon rugby brought both sides attacking skills to the fore. Halfback Andy Ellis was the chief architect for the hosts, bringing years of All Black cunning to the fore. His own try and the set-up for Nasi Manu were clinical moments. His leadership assisted the decision-making of first-five Tyler Bleyendaal who opening the game up in the second half including the signature move where he glided into the line and set replacement loose forward Jordan Taufua free. Captain George Whitelock was also instrumental leading the pack, particularly with his support running and pressure on the Auckland playmakers. The visitors conceded several soft first half tries once their defence had been run ragged. A barrelling Laulala run and offload in the midfield highlighted Auckland's plight.
Auckland showed less of the dominance which enabled them to break a run of six losses against Canterbury in the round robin. The ball recycling, straight running into contact and commitment at the breakdown with body positions which drove low well past the ball was not as emphatic.
Despite the running game, Canterbury's defence also proved too powerful. Their line was often rigid with two to three defenders swarming around tackled players to tangle for possession. Auckland crabbed too much across the field with limited penetration. They gave away a few penalties in the first half but to only have their line broken twice was a credit.
The visitors had their moments. Luke Braid's steal from a rare sloppy Canterbury scrum saw the ball come back through Hadleigh Parkes to feed Simon Hickey. It gave Auckland an early advantage but Canterbury's methodical response made the result seem inevitable.
Canterbury 56 (T.Bleyendaal, A.Ellis, N.Manu, G.Whitelock, J.Taufua, R.Crotty, S.Siataga tries, Bleyendaal 6 con, 3 pen) Auckland 26 (S.Hickey, V.Aso tries, Hickey 2 con, 4 pen) Halftime: 25-19