Canterbury have locked the Ranfurly Shield away for the summer – but it took them 83 minutes to do so.
A try after the hooter had sounded from reserve prop Harry Allan saw the hosts barely survive a fierce challenge from North Harbour, clinging to a 31-25 victory.
Harbour, who had claimed the Shield just once, against Canterbury in 2006, were looking good to repeat the dose 13 years later, with tries to Mark Telea and Lewis Gjaltema seeing them come back from a 17-5 deficit at halftime, and 24-13 with 15 minutes remaining, to take a 25-24 lead into the dying stages.
A missed penalty from Brett Cameron with five minutes to go – from a simple position – saw one Canterbury chance go begging, but they were given another opportunity in the final throes.
A penalty from 40 metres out, on a tough angle, was turned down, with Cameron instead kicking for the corner. A powerful rolling maul put them close to the line, before earning a pivotal penalty advantage. Strangely, they opted against taking a drop goal, but their decision paid off as repeated drives towards the Harbour line eventually reaped rewards as Allan crashed over.
It was a brutal blow for Harbour on two accounts. Not only were they denied just their second Shield tenure, but the loss also sees them miss out on the playoffs in the Premiership, by one point to fourth-placed Auckland.
Auckland will now play the unbeaten Tasman in their semifinal next week, while Canterbury will turn their attention to a tasty clash against Wellington.
In the Championship, Otago limped into the playoffs after suffering an embarrassing 40-10 thrashing at the hands of Northland. Having lost the Shield to Canterbury last week, Otago had clearly run out of puff, or merely realised there was nothing to play for, and were run off the park by a Northland side who came into the clash in last on the Championship ladder, having conceded 42 points per game.
This time, they were the team to pile on the points, leaving Southland to take the wooden spoon for the third straight season. Scott Gregory and Jordan Hyland bagged doubles as the hosts ran in six tries, and while Northland still had to do plenty of defending, making 154 tackles as Otago racked up 57 per cent possession, they held solid to claim a surprisingly substantial victory.
Otago will have to regroup before a semifinal against Hawke's Bay next week, while Bay of Plenty will take on Manawatu in the other semi.
The semifinalists have also been found in the Farah Palmer Cup.
Canterbury will take on Counties Manukau in a rematch of last year's final after they completed a perfect regular season with their sixth straight win, thrashing Bay of Plenty 40-7.
In the other Premiership semifinal, Wellington will take on Auckland after they came from behind to beat Manawatu 42-26. In the Championship, Northland took down Taranaki in their quarter-final to book a semifinal against Otago, while Tasman will visit Hawke's Bay after they edged North Harbour in their quarter-final.