Rugby: Otago win sixth straight to remain on top

By Campbell Burnes

Fletcher Smith of Otago. Photo / Getty
Fletcher Smith of Otago. Photo / Getty

Otago's winning streak is now running at six.

The runaway Mitre 10 Cup Championship leaders brought the grit and the requisite accuracy to put paid to a committed but profligate North Harbour at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium. But while Otago have favoured the free-wheeling approach for much of their unbeaten season, they were challenged by North Harbour at the set-piece and with questions asked of their defensive line. For the most part, they held the line, answering those questions in the affirmative, despite missing 15 tackles to eight, according to ThreeNrugby stats.

The key numbers were the 14 handling errors (to Otago's eight) by North Harbour, who just look like a side so close to making the breakthrough if they could hold onto the ball. They challenge physically and create chances in the backline, but too often they push a pass in contact or knock the ball on.

"The boys are really tired. There was a lot of running and they are a dangerous team," said a relieved Otago skipper, No 8 Paul Grant, who was in the thick of Otago's pack effort and carried with venom.

North Harbour captain Chris Vui won his lineout ball again, but cut a disconsolate and frustrated figure straight after the clash.

"We trained to not make mistakes, so we've got to cut the errors out," said the lock.

Otago led 14-13 at the half, but that came with some luck. Prop Craig Millar latched onto a Tom Franklin offload to sprint 25m for the opening try, but there was enough doubt to say it was a forward pass. First five Fletcher Smith kicked well, both out of hand and off the tee, where he was five from six, along with making a trysaving tackle on Vui.

North Harbour were dangerous on attack at times, but their passing was often shoddy and No 10 Bryn Gatland twice committed the cardinal sin of failing to find touch from penalties. However, they did reduce the margin to one when Michael Little made a break to set up his midfield partner Matt Vaega, who looked likely for most of the match.

Otago hooker Sam Anderson-Heather's 44th minute try was critical as that halted some of Harbour's momentum, both teams having entered the second spell with intent. And though Brandon Nansen made an emphatic impact off the bench, both aerially and with the ball, the errors kept mounting for North Harbour.

The pleasing sight was replacement back Marty Swart making his return from two seasons of knee reconstructions for the visitors.

Otago travel to Christchurch next Saturday for a crossover derby with Canterbury, while North Harbour are back at home to Southland the following day.

Otago 24 (C. Millar, S. Anderson-Heather tries; F. Smith con, 4 pens)
North Harbour 13 (M. Vaega try; B. Gatland con, 2 pens)
HT: 14-13

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