By WYNNE GRAY
AUCKLAND 34 - NORTHLAND 16
Four years ago Xavier Rush impressed enough for Auckland in their regular tussle against Northland to force his way into the All Blacks.
In Whangarei tonight the Auckland captain was more dominant, his crunching charges and defence crucial components in his side's redemptive victory after the sloppy NPC round-one loss against Taranaki.
If Rush was a forceful leader, his able lieutenant was fullback Carlos Spencer, whose instincts, kicking and vision were key factors in most of Auckland's tries.
Auckland's victory avenged their defeat in the NPC by Northland last season.
It also repaired some of the misery of last week, though there were times in the final quarter when Northland looked capable of chewing into the visitors' lead.
However, Auckland's defence held out Northland's traditional rolling mauls and lineout drives. Their only try conceded in the match came from an intercept.
Auckland's intentions were clear from the start. They were going to spread the ball wide where they felt they had the edge on Northland, even if they had two Fijian flyers, Rupeni Caucaunibuca and Fero Lasagavibau, on the wing.
It was a tactic which required quick ruck ball and the pack complied for large chunks of the first half, supporting the ball carrier and delivering decent possession for halfback Steve Devine.
Retreaded first five-eighths Lee Stensness distributed freely, and further out Spencer, once he fully trusted his tender hamstring, worried the defence as he made regular intrusions from fullback.
He was involved in each of Auckland's three tries in the first half. After making some space, tighthead prop Kees Meeuws charged on to set another ruck for the rumbling drive and opening try for hooker Keven Mealamu.
Spencer had the next himself. Skipper Rush burst up the middle and the defences were still backpedalling when Spencer used his pace to beat a tight forward in an arcing run to the line.
It showed Spencer's sharp skills, but he outdid that close to halftime when he clipped a pinpoint crossfield punt into the in-goal area for a simple catch-and-try to Iliesa Tanivula.
With a 20-6 lead at halftime, Auckland had made a much better start than they did against Taranaki.
But just as they would have been complimenting themselves on that beginning, they conceded a try to Lasagavibau, who pulled off a tricky intercept when it looked as if Auckland would score at the other end.
Veteran centre Eroni Clarke had his pass snaffled, but he made amends soon after when he followed another raid by Rush and fastened on to a superb flick up from Tane Tuipulotu to score.
There was a lull for about 25 minutes as Northland ground away in Auckland's half, but could neither muscle nor scheme their way across the line.
Forwards Tim Henwood and Allen Tubbs lost the ball in separate moves as they dived for tries. Northland's only profit was another penalty from Jared Going.
Having weathered the assaults, Auckland broke one final time and a delayed pass from Spencer gave Clarke his second try and the certainty of a bonus point.
Auckland 34 (E. Clarke 2, K. Mealamu, C. Spencer, I. Tanivula, tries; C . Spencer 3 con, pen) Northland 16 (F. Lasagavibau, try; J. Going 3 pen, con). HT: 20-6