Rugby: Last minute drop goal seals promotion for North Harbour

By Campbell Burnes

North Harbour 17 Otago 14

Bryn Gatland has kicked North Harbour into the Premiership.

Thoughts of 1992 entered the mind as the clock wound down at a 14-all stalemate in the Dunedin Championship final. The first NPC semifinal went to extra time before a late Greg Cooper try broke Harbour hearts.

But Gatland, the No 10, slotted a 79th minute drop goal to win the Championship, meaning Harbour will swap with Hawke's Bay for the 2017 season. He emulated his 2013 late pot which won Hamilton BHS the national Top 4 title.

It was a dramatic, tense final, but the likes of Wayne Shelford and Peter Thorburn, captain and coach of the last Harbour side to win a provincial title, the 1987 NPC second division, would have pumped their fists at this effort.

It was some party at Cory Brown's place for the first provincial final in Otago since 1998 on that joyous Sunday afternoon at Carisbrook. Tony Gilbert, who coached Otago to their NPC title on that day, presented the jerseys, along with Ben Smith during the week.

Both men would have taken pride at Otago's commitment.

The home side were powerful and effective either stripping the ball in mauls or counter-rucking. The latter skill brought about the opening try of the second spell, to lock Tom Franklin, after Gatland got himself intro trouble deep in his half from a probing kick.

Matt Duffie had a busy night on the Harbour right wing, defusing bombs. Otago No 15 Michael Collins was equally involved, running hard and kicking judiciously, although he did put a late clearance out on the full.

Andrew Hore entered the fray at 60 minutes for his 311th first-class match and his first appearance for the blue and golds since Wayne Smith was head coach of the All Blacks (2000).

The first half proved to be quintessentially rugged finals footy, with no quarter given or asked on defence.

North Harbour, so relaxed all week at training, wore their game faces as they went down the tunnel, but it was Otago who started with real purpose. Their slick handling out wide and manipulation of space put wing Fa'asiu Fuatai over within the opening two minutes.

That fired the crowd up, but it also appeared to fire up the visitors, who attacked wide and yet kept their handling errors, an Achilles heel early in the season, to a minimum. Even when flanker Glenn Preston was binned for collapsing the maul, they did not drop their bundle. On the contrary, they sparked up on attack so well that wing Tevita Li put second five Michael Little into a smallish gap. The second five, who tackled like a demon all night, did the rest and he had plenty to do. His dexterity deserved a try in the corner, and the TMO gave him the benefit of the doubt. It will be a travesty if he is not announced next week in one of the Super Rugby squads.

Gatland banged over two late penalty goals for Harbour to take the 11-7 lead into the sheds as errors crept into Otago's game. Coach Brown might have reminded them to take all their penalty shots at goal, as this was a final.

North Harbour 17 (Michael Little try; Bryn Gatland 3 pen, dg)
Otago 14 (Fa'asiu Fuatai, Tom Franklin tries; Fletcher Smith 2 con) HT: 11-7

- NZ Herald

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