Rene Ranger could not have asked for anything better in his 100th match for Northland than a win against the highly-fancied Waikato outfit. His team-mates rose to the occasion and delivered just that at Semenoff Stadium on Friday night.
A small but vocal crowd was permitted in the venue for the cataclysmic clash in the Bunnings Warehouse NPC Championship that went right down to the wire but the hosts held their composure and held Waikato out just long enough.
However, it was heartbreak for Northland Kauri in their Farah Palmer Cup semifinal clash at the same venue earlier in the evening, losing narrowly 27-26 to Hawkes Bay Tui.
The Kauri had raced to three converted tries by prop Hinewai Pomare, hooker Tiaho Mahanga and centre Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali inside the first quarter before the Tui fought back through Rakai McCafferty and Krysten Cottrell.
Subritzky-Nafatali scored her second in the 43rd minute to push Kauri's lead to 26-10 before the visitors mounted an audacious comeback.
In the men's NPC clash, the match could have gone either way after wing Liam Coombes-Fabling fielded a cross-kick and jinked past the Northland cover defence to score with minutes remaining but the hosts held their nerve to nail this one shut.
Northland played with a flow and cohesion, as well as physical clout, to believe their growth trajectory will be upward. If they keep building the way they are, they could be a handful.
The one disappointing aspect is the fact the Taniwha left the door for the Mooloo men to claw their way back in and just about steal an unlikely win. But that's the point - it was only just about— and it showed Northland were no longer prone to cracking under pressure.
They won the critical moments. They found a way to hold their composure when it mattered and put the nail in the Waikato coffin with a try to Sam McNamara, who exposed a gaping hole through the breakdown.
How Waikato's defence forgot to cover the blindside that allowed McNamara to peel away and gleefully gallop to the tryline is what has to be top of the list in post-match analysis for the visitors.
Halfback Sam Nock played a brilliant hand with his tactical control and percentage plays that put his team in the right places to score tries while first five Dan Hawkins and fullback Rivez Reihana alternating as either first receivers or putting the ball into touch worked tactically well.
The slabs upfront kept pounding and their work bashed Waikato's resolve and resistance. Northland players got up to make another tackle, hit a ruck, or run a decoy support line.
From bashing ball carriers upfront to pinching lineouts, Sam Caird was a constant menace while wing Jone Macilai ran over the Waikato defence, using his leg drive to eke out extra metres.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge Ranger's all-around performance and, although he didn't get on the scoreboard, the former All Black put players into space after drawing multiple defenders that helped Northland with good front-foot ball.
He reminded Waikato of the Ranger Danger — that when he's on the charge, even rugby's hardest nuts start thinking about taking up fishing.
Midfield partner Tamati Tua also had a blinder, scoring once and he had a hand in another where he whipped a pass for Macilai to touch down for Northland to take the lead in the first half.
Tua couldn't believe his luck when he weaved past some feeble Waikato defence and dived over.
Indeed, such was Tua's mood, he could have probably turned around and run through the Waikato defence again.
The visitors were lucky Northland skipper Jordan Olsen bombed two tries.
"I've already been reminded of that twice," Olsen said post-match.
He was pleased with an 80-minute performance and more pleased Ranger's 100th game was a winning one.
"There's no team we can't beat as long as we stick to our game plan we worked on during the week. It works out well for us and the x-factor was just the passion and the effort the guys put in.
"We played well in the first half and they came back pretty hard on us in the second half but we managed to hold our composure and get a couple of points back on them and hold them out just long enough.
"There was something special brewing the whole week from these fellas, we talked about it a bit during the week and we sort of knew the occasion, get everyone up and excited and fortunately the boys put together the performance the occasion deserved."
For his Waikato counterpart Ayden Johnstone, his side simply didn't rise to the occasion.
"They made it pretty tough for us out there, their team was really raised for Rene's 100th, everything we tried, they shut down. Obviously, we were very frustrated.
"They shut us out of our rugby, they brought the passion, that's what rugby is all about and we didn't rise to the occasion. We spoke about it during the week that we want to keep raising the bar every week but I don't think we did and again Northland made it very hard."