North Harbour 21
If North Harbour want to be crowned King in the North, they'll need to find their killer mentality.
Widely tipped to be the best team from the northern region in this year's Mitre 10 Cup, Harbour were sluggish in the season opener, requiring a late Bryn Gatland penalty to claim a nervy 21-20 victory over Northland.
The eventual result will be pleasing, but the way it was earned far less so, considering that Harbour have a strong squad which should be comfortably dealing with an admittedly solid Northland side.
After all, Harbour's starting lineup tonight had six Super Rugby players, and also eight Blues players. An electric back three of Tevita Li, Matt Duffie and Shaun Stevenson is arguably the best in the competition, while the front row of Nic Mayhew, James Parsons and Sione Mafileo should be able to hold their own against any front row surprise that comes their way this season.
Despite their strength on paper, they never found top gear against Northland, though in fairness, Northland are no longer the complete shambles they used to be. While they haven't had a winning record in a top-level provincial season since – wait for it – 1980, Northland won five games last year, making the Championship semifinals.
Rene Ranger and imported first-five Jack Debreczeni loom as their pivotal performers this season, and they were some of their best on show at North Harbour Stadium as they gave Harbour all they could handle.
Ranger helped set up their first try, released on the counter-attack before feeding the flowing ginger locks of Tom Robertson, but despite Northland's early potency, Harbour struck back through the deadly combination of Stevenson and Li.
As a result, their buffer looked fairly secure, leading 18-10 with Northland having a man in the sinbin, but a dart out of the ruck saw halfback Jono Kitto cross for a try with 20 minutes to go, before a Debreczeni penalty gave Northland a stunning lead with time running out.
However, just as a win looked unlikely, Gatland stepped up to nail a penalty, and Harbour's defence clung on to continue their reign as the team to beat up north.
North Harbour 21 (D. Hunt, T. Li tries; B. Gatland 3 pens, B. Hall con)
Northland 20 (T. Robertson, J. Kitto tries; J. Debreczeni 2 cons, 2 pens)