Rugby: Waikato withstand Harbour challenge to retain Shield

By Campbell Burnes

Waikato 26 North Harbour 15
Waikato prop Loni Uhila runs in a try during Waikato's win over North Harbour. Photo / photosport.nz
Waikato prop Loni Uhila runs in a try during Waikato's win over North Harbour. Photo / photosport.nz

Waikato withstood a fierce Ranfurly Shield challenge from North Harbour to rack up the fourth win of their current tenure in their 100th match for the Log o' Wood.

Their victory was built on an explosive opening quarter, which saw them roar to a 19-0 lead. North Harbour understandably looked shellshocked, but hauled themselves back into the game off some spark from second five-eighths Michael Little and yeoman work from the pack, led by No 8 Murphy Taramai, captain Chris Vui and rookie hooker Vyron Smith, who charged around the pitch with admirable vigour in his first start.

In the final analysis, North Harbour will be kicking themselves for not taking all their chances, both from the tee, where Bryn Gatland left eight points out on the pitch, and then when centre Matt Vaega, who struggled to contain his old schoolmate Nathaniel Apa, had the ball knocked out of his grasp by Jordan Trainor while in the act of scoring.

There was a lot of ball movement, thunderous hits and high drama, with a whiff of controversy thrown in.

After Gatland's opening clearance was charged down, Waikato skipper Isaac Boss scored a try on the goalpost padding within one minute of kickoff, but replays showed he had committed a knock-on. It didn't phase Waikato, who barely made an error in the opening 20 minutes. Prop Loni Uhila burst free from a lineout to score, and Apa slipped Vaega twice, scoring once.

But Waikato started to get pinged by referee Mike Fraser, and Little scored a nice try from broken play. When halfback Bryn Hall finished off an Afa Fa'atau intercept, it was 19-15 and North Harbour, with an ascendant scrum, could smell victory with just over 30 minutes to play.

Waikato, however, were far from done and showed the better composure in the final 10 minutes. Hooker Hame Faiva, one of the best for the Mooloos, left the field groggily, but not before driving over from a lineout to seal the hard-won defence.

North Harbour's ball retention failed them in the clutch, and wing Tevita Li, who otherwise ran hard all game, will be trying to avoid coach Steve Jackson's gaze for the next few days after opting to kick a penalty for touch himself only to watch in horror as it went touch in-goal.

Waikato's commitment was exemplified by prop Atu Moli, who put on three bruising tackles in as many minutes, the second on lock Brandon Nansen a real rib-tickler.

"That was a very tough challenge. We came out of the blocks with a hiss and a roar, but they fought back well," said Boss.

Waikato will defend the Shield again next Sunday against Manawatu. North Harbour are in the capital to face the Lions next Saturday.

Waikato 26 (I. Boss, L. Uhila, N. Apa, H. Faiva tries; J. Trainor 3 cons)
North Harbour 15 (M. Little, B. Hall tries; B. Gatland con, pen)
Halftime: 19-10.

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