NELSON - Nelson Bays first five-eighths Warren Johnston kicked the most important goal of his long and illustrious career to secure the NPC rugby second-division title.
With the home team trailing 11-13 and time up on the clock, 201-game first-class veteran Johnston kicked the goal from 30m to steal a dramatic 14-13 victory and bury a brave Bay of Plenty team.
Bay of Plenty outscored Nelson Bays two tries to one, with winger Keith Pryor and fullback Andre Bell crossing in the second half to put their team 10-8 ahead with 30 minutes remaining.
Johnston and Bay first five-eighths Dean Jennings then traded penalties for the visitors to retain the lead at 13-11 and send Saturday's match into its final dramatic moments.
But Johnston, who has now scored 1985 first-class points, proved equal to the task to send the locals into a frenzy.
"Actually, I wasn't feeling too bad," said Johnston of his pressure kick. "It was just a matter of keeping my head down and striking the ball nicely."
Nelson Bays, with the benefit of a strong tailwind, led 8-0 at halftime through an early Johnston penalty and a try from fullback Mark Milne, who dived over four minutes before the break following excellent buildup.
However, Nelson Bays' forwards were constantly under pressure from a strong Bay of Plenty pack, whose pick-and-drive tactics created plenty of momentum, a factor acknowledged by winning coach Bill Liddell.
"They played very well, didn't they?" Liddell said. "They knew where we were most vulnerable and they played to it. They must be gutted."
Liddell also felt remarkably calm when Johnston stepped up to attempt the match-winning kick, which followed a ruck infringement.
"I actually felt he'd kick it, to be honest. He came through, didn't he?"
Ultimately the character and strong defence of a Nelson Bays side whose only previous loss this season was to Bay of Plenty in Rotorua won through.
"They truly responded the way you wanted them to respond," Liddell said. "I think the home-town advantage came through. They got those phases together at the end and they were crucial, and Bay of Plenty were going to make a mistake because the pressure was on."
Nelson Bays prop Kerry Shaw made a strong contribution in his 100th match, while hooker Gavin Briggs, lock Peter Bowden and loose forwards Graham Ching and Mark De Goldi were always in the action.
No 8 Clayton MacMillan led the Bay of Plenty pack superbly, with Craig De Goldi, Glen Remnant, Warwick Morehu, Thompson Tapsell and substitute lock Wayne Ormond all prominent.
Fullback Bell handled all Johnston's aerial attacks superbly, while Pryor used his pace well to score the game's best try.
Bay of Plenty coach Gordon Tietjens felt his team had done enough to secure the victory but ultimately, the pressure told.
"At the end of the day it's all about 80 minutes,isn't it, and to give that penalty away at the end was obviously quite devastating." - NZPA