Happy 50th Ash Dixon and as many happy returns to the Hawke's Bay Magpies.
Magpies hooker Ash Dixon couldn't have asked for a better result in his 50th first-class outing for the side and the 50th Ranfurly Shield defence in the Hawke's Bay Rugby Union's history than this 36-14 victory against the Wellington Lions in front of 10,200 fans at Napier's McLean Park last night. The manner in which the Magpies shook off a patchy first half and produced a near-polished second spell was the perfect rehearsal for Sunday's ITM Cup Championship top-of-the-table clash against the Manawatu Turbos in Palmerston North.
It was appropriate Magpies lock Mark Abbott should be my choice for player-of-the-match honours, too. With new Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd also the Lions coach, Abbott again made a statement suggesting he deserves more Super Rugby time in 2015 than the two appearances he made for the Canes this year.
Typically Abbott wasn't getting too carried away with his own form after the final whistle. Instead he was praising the entire squad's contribution.
"It was a pretty good game from everyone. We didn't play well in the first half but corrected things in the second. We've got to thank the home crowd for helping us do that.
"We don't really focus on our own individual goals. It's the team's goal week in and week out which we focus on. Manawatu have been playing well and Sunday's game is important for us. Hawke's Bay haven't had a home semifinal for a while and we would dearly love to secure one with a win on Sunday," he said.
Close behind Abbott in the battle for honours was captain and openside flanker Brendon O'Connor who made a sensational return after missing the last two games with concussion.
The Magpies had the opportunity to open the scoring in the third minute but first five-eighth Ihaia West missed a penalty attempt from 37 metres after referee Glen Jackson pinged the Lions for a scrum infringement. Lions pivot Willie Ripia succeeded with his first attempt from 23 metres in the ninth minute to give the visitors a 3-0 lead.
Three minutes later Magpies No8 Gareth Evans scored the first try of the game after O'Connor charged the ball down and secured a turnover. West slotted the conversion and the Magpies led 7-3.
Ripia closed the gap with a handy penalty in the 16th minute.
The conceding of silly penalties took its toll on the Magpies and Ripia nailed his third consecutive attempt at goal in the 20th minute to give the Lions a 9-7 lead. The Bay lacked patience and accuracy again until the 39th minute when O'Connor scored a try which West converted to give the hosts a 14-9 halftime lead.
This followed the Magpies' decision to turn down a penalty attempt at goal after Lions lock Vaea Fifita was sinbinned for a no-arms tackle on Evans, who left the field with a suspected broken collarbone. Trent Boswell-Wakefield replaced him.
It was pleasing to note the Magpies had missed just one tackle in the first half, a big improvement from the 13 missed during the first spell of the previous Saturday night's loss to North Harbour. However discipline was an issue which required attention as the hosts had conceded seven penalties in the first half, four more than Jackson had awarded in their favour.
The Magpies had 73 per cent of the territory in the first spell and 59 per cent of possession.
The hosts stung early in the second half when fullback Richard Buckman made a spectacular break to send winger Ryan Tongia away for a try which West converted. While Fifita was in the bin, the Lions conceded 21 points.
Flanker Tony Lamborn scored the bonus-point try in the 49th minute after centre Robbie Fruean sparked a counter attack and quick hands beat the Lions' scrambling defence. West again converted and the Magpies led 28-9.
Tongia scored his second try and 10th of the season to extend the lead in the 64th minute. It was a tribute to the Magpies' magnificent defence that the Lions didn't score a try until the 73rd minute when fullback Matt Proctor dived over in the corner.
The Magpies' substitute first five-eighth and "Mr Consistent" in the goalkicking department, Matt Berquist, had the final say with a 46-metre penalty attempt in the 75th minute.
The Lions remain winless after eight games in the Premiership.
• HB Magpies 36 (Ryan Tongia 2, Gareth Evans, Brendon O'Connor, Tony Lamborn tries; Matt Berquist pen, Ihaia West 4 cons) Wellington Lions 14 (Matt Proctor try, Willie Ripia 3 pens). HT: 14-9.
• Turning point: Magpies winger Ryan Tongia's try in the 41st minute, which pivot Ihaia West converted to give the hosts a 21-9 lead. The Lions were never going to recover from this.
• Heartstopper: Magpies flanker Tony Lamborn's knock on four metres from the tryline in the 37th minute when the Magpies were trailing 9-7. The pressure was intense at this stage. Fortunately, it had no bearing on the game's outcome.
• Player of the match: Magpies lock Mark Abbott. Outstanding in all aspects of play and in front of new Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd. Abbott deserves a lot more Super Rugby game time next year than he got this year.