By CHRIS RATTUE
SOUTHLAND 30 NORTHLAND 27
The move that never works, in training at least, clinched Southland crucial points in Whangarei that have left Northland planted at the foot of the NPC table.
The southerners' win, completing their first successive first-division victories since 1977, was claimed in the final minute when wing Hayden Martine beat Fero Lasagavibau to the touchdown, from Richard Apanui's cross-field kick.
It provided an easy decision for the video referee, and minutes later a Southland team who believe they can push for a semifinals place were celebrating at ITM Stadium on Saturday night.
Northland, meanwhile, were left as early favourites to play the promotion-relegation game, which will be hosted by the second-division side. They face a nervous time - relegation is a disaster area, as Counties Manukau have shown.
Southland captain Steve Jackson, who had a brilliant lineout game, said the cross-field kick move - dubbed "cabbage" - was tried at every training session, with disastrous results.
The ball either went over the dead-ball line or out on the full. Mana Harrison was once knocked unconscious and suffered a deep head wound requiring nine stitches after colliding with the chasing Martine, who also suffered facial injuries.
"We call the move 'cabbage' because that's [hooker] Jason Rutledge's nickname. He's always hanging about on the wing," said Jackson. "I thought, 'Oh no, this thing never works' as the ball went up in the air."
Rutledge, 25, who had another outstanding match, was given the non-politically correct nickname during a two-year stand-down from rugby because of head injuries.
The son of former Southland coach and All Blacks loose forward Leicester Rutledge is famed for his weightlifting power and led a dominant Southland pack who continually stole Northland's scant ruck ball.
Southland, who beat North Harbour last week after narrow losses to Wellington and Otago, are in a buoyant mood as they prepare to face Canterbury in Invercargill.
They have a tough stretch of games but there is an atmosphere of unpredictability in this year's championship, which is producing tantalising contests now that some of the advantages enjoyed by Super 12 franchise bases have been stripped away because of the World Cup.
Southland have been first-division cellar-dwellers since their last promotion from the second division, finishing in the bottom three since 1997 with a maximum two wins a season.
Jackson said the top sides were still laced with All Blacks, but the absence of the World Cup stars gave others a mental lift.
"We set ourselves some goals this year and making the semifinals was talked about," he said.
"I don't know how many of the boys went away and really thought about it as being realistic, but they're believing in themselves now. There is no reason why we can't have that as a realistic goal."
Southland are scoring plenty of tries, and not just through their resolute forward pack.
Northland struggled to retain possession, but when they did, almost scored at will. Their first two tries went to chunky second five-eighths Josh Levi, reducing Southland's lead to 13-10.
But Northland only grabbed the lead with 10 minutes remaining, before the "cabbage" move got Southland home.
Southland often found a way of stepping between the Northland ball carrier and his support, and Jackson kept pinching their lineout ball.
Northland coach Donny Stevenson, who has coached Jackson in the NZ Maori side, said: "Jacko is not big for a lock but so light and explosive he's easy to get up in the air ... He's the master at stealing ball."
Stevenson believes Southland won some leeway from referee Steve Walsh in stealing ruck and maul possession, but was still disappointed in his players' ball protection and failure to reduce Jackson's effectiveness by calling short lineouts.
"We've played teams who give up on the ball; who just fan and spread. Southland have a real crack at it. Our guys were really passive.
"It's frustrating to come away from that with no points. A big disappointment."
NPC points table
By CHRIS RATTUE