Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Auckland one step from glory

By WYNNE GRAY

AUCKLAND 29 CANTERBURY 23

The scoreline did not do Auckland justice as they dismantled the Canterbury dynasty which has dominated New Zealand rugby for the last few years.

This victory was as comprehensive as any side has managed in this season's NPC and blew away the six-year hoodoo the southerners had over Auckland.

Forget the names and reputations of the Cantabrians, this was a night when men like Carlos Spencer, Sam Tuitupou, Bradley Mika, Daniel Braid and Kees Meeuws wrote their names in black felt pen into NPC folklore.

They were the headline acts but it was the passion, the relentless aggression of the entire side from replacement prop Scott Palmer to tyro fullback Brent Ward which outgunned the defending champions.

It was a composed self-belief which had been building and been driven by a bold coaching staff and inspirational captaincy from Xavier Rush.

Most of the early venom came from Auckland. Most of the territory stayed with Canterbury.

It was that strange mix for much of the first half as the defending NPC champions struggled to make any imprint on the visitors. They looked lethargic with the ball, their passing lacked a great deal of crispness and their moves looked predictable.

They were cut down by ferocious defence which leaked just one first half try to Ben Blair as the fullback took advantage of his side's weight of possession and field position. It was a rare linebreak for Canterbury.

In contrast, Auckland came with a new box of attacking ploys, an attitude of adventure and enterprise.

As usual most of the operations revolved around the trickery and deception of Spencer. His sleight of hand, timing and delay of his passing upset the rhythm of the Canterbury tacklers. Defence has been one of the foundation stones of Canterbury's successful era, a skill which allowed them to win some games they should have lost.

They hassled and hounded Spencer but the five-eighths was able to hold the ball up enough to create doubt in the defence and allow his runners to make the crucial headway.

Midfield back Tuitupou regularly punched holes while closer to the ruck burly Mika and Meeuws smashed forward. Wider out, fullback Ward looked dangerous on the counteratttack.

Auckland stunned Canterbury with the power in their game.

Twice Tuitupou levered his way past a cluth of defenders and on the second burst he had flanker Daniel Braid on his shoulder who spun and twisted his way to the line.

It seemed an aberration for the Christchurch crowd, who glowed soon after when Blair scored.

But the next three tries all came from Auckland and had Spencer delivered better goalkicking accuracy, Canterbury would have had far bigger problems not long after halftime.

Tuitupou scored himself when he emulated Braid and supported his captain, who had belted through a couple of tacklers. Another Spencer pass sent Ben Atiga to the shadow of the tryline before referee Paul Honiss ruled a scrum.

In the set move, it was the deception and pace of Spencer which bought a little space and the pass from Mils Muliaina under huge pressure which gave Doug Howlett a clear sprint to the line.

But Canterbury were only 17-13 adrift at halftime and when Andrew Mehrtens goaled soon after a red and black revival looked probable.

Instead Auckland answered with another sledgehammer statement.

The usual assailants led the charge. Tuitupou made the first assault, Braid, Rush and Co brought the support and when the ball was moved wide, Spencer eased Muliaina into a gap where he was able to deliver Atiga a simple run to the goalline.

Canterbury could not find any attacking verve, they were bashed and belted by an Auckland defence which has been the best in the competition all season. It was a compelling display of passion, aggression and accuracy from the young Auckland side.

They confirmed their superiority when a desperate Canterbury dropped the ball in a rare attack, Spencer hoofed the ball downfield where the Auckland chasers delivered such pressure Justin Collins scored after confirmation from the television match official.

Auckland 29 (D Braid, S Tuitupou, D Howlett, B Atiga, J Collins, tries, C Spencer, con, B Ward, con)

Canterbury 23 (B Blair, A Mauger, tries; A Mehrtens, 3 pen, con, B Blair con)

Halftime 17-13

NPC schedule/scoreboard

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