Air NZ Cup

Northland 13
Auckland 32

This was, perhaps, the kind of match that is making the poor old provincial championship popular again.

In days past, Auckland teams would travel nervously up north to take on the Cambridge Blues and the event would attract people from far and wide.


Players would unclog their studs in anticipation of giving them a wee day out on the city boys and, every now and then, locals would field a gnarled and horrible figure who might not have seen a barber in months - seemingly enticed out of the bush with bits of raw meat and the promise of combat against people who used soap.

They were competitive physical affairs regarded with some fondness when the provincial championship seemed to have undergone a change which saw it - and, for many years, Northland - gelded like farm hacks.

Yesterday, in Kerikeri, seemed a throwback to the good old days.

There was a carnival and competitive atmosphere; the park lined with people hoping to see the Jafas jolted. Early on, Isaia Toeava took one in the ribs after he'd passed the ball; Derek Carpenter's tickle-up tackle reminiscent of such times. The crowd roared.

If we don't recognise many of the names straight away, that is becoming one of the charms of the Air NZ Cup - and we're getting used to the fact this is not clinical, top-notch rugby.

Most fans like to say they were there when the next All Black talent first strutted his stuff. In young players like first-five Ash Moeke, winger Dave Thomas and, in particular, No 8 Peter Saili, Auckland had newcomers of interest to go with their four returning All Blacks - Joe Rokocoko, Toeava, Jerome Kaino and John Afoa. Northland had a rugged halfback, Luke Hamilton, the dangerous Rene Ranger and a name redolent of the glorious past - winger Troy Woodman, surely kin of Northland's All Black brother-wingers Fred and Kawhena. It was Auckland and Rokocoko who hit their stride first. Rokocoko has had a wretched international season and, if he'd done poorly at this level, there would surely be no way back.

But he worked hard in this game, made himself available and took advantage of some hesitant midfield defence to dummy through and clatter over in the tackle. A similar deficiency saw Thomas - who has a bit of a Howlett haircut - score in the same corner.

Former Auckland first five-Lachie Munro missed a couple but landed two penalties in the first half to keep the deficit to nine points.


But Auckland had more control at the breakdown and in the loose and more pace, with the northerners having their efforts checked by too much turnover ball.

Moeke's control was better, his kicking keeping the pressure on; halfback Grayson Hart had a tidy game and started to make little inroads with his runs; and flanker Onosai Tololima-Auva'a was closest to the ball - the most troublesome in turnover territory.

But then Northland started to get some ball. They ran straight and hard, backed up well and passes previously spilled started to stick. Captain and fullback Jared Payne scored after a smart angled run into the backline from sustained pressure.

That was 18-13 and Northland hearts beat a little faster - until Auckland's forwards and their All Blacks lifted a notch, Kaino foremost. Toeava began making inroads in the backs and replacement halfback Auvasa Faleali'i scored under the bar in his debut after quick hands from Rokocoko and Afoa.

If that was the end of the Northland challenge - and Auckland's first win of this Cup season - the city boys will have taken heart at an improved forward effort. Rokocoko got a strong-running second for the bonus point and to make a point.

Wonder what they'll be like without the All Blacks?

Northland 13 (J. Payne try; L. Munro con, 2 pen), Auckland 32 (J. Rokocoko 2, D. Thomas, A. Faleali'i tries, A. Moeke 3 con, 2 pen). Halftime: 6-15.