Simon Hickey celebrated his milestone provincial match with two tries as Auckland responded from last week's deflating defeat to trounce Manawatu 50-12 at a deserted Eden Park.
Hickey's half century has been a long time coming. The diminutive playmaker is back in the blue and white hoops after five years in the Northern Hemisphere, where he spent time in France and Scotland.
Hickey has signed to play for the Hurricanes next season but on Sunday afternoon, in front of fewer than 100 supporters, the 26-year-old showed his poise to regularly challenge the line, deliver try assists and calmly direct Auckland to a win that was never in doubt.
In the eight-tries-to-two romp Hickey helped spark Auckland's potent attacking ability to collect 22 points and steer Alama Ieremia's side to a 16th successive victory over Manawatu, who remain winless this season.
"It's great to be home again," Hickey said. "It was so much fun playing in-front of my family today it's been a long time since I've had them all there. I was lucky the manager sorted me out with lots of tickets. I'm really proud to play 50 games for Auckland.
"I sorted to come back just before coronavirus hit so I got pretty lucky with the timing. I missed home, I missed New Zealand rugby and being around family and friends so it's great to be back."
Auckland squandered a number of try-scoring chances through impatience and individual white line fever in the first half in particular but their second victory from three attempts is a step in the right direction following last week's 39-21 home defeat to Wellington.
It also came in a different context, with the bulk of the All Blacks no longer available for provincial duties.
Auckland were vastly improved from last week's effort against Wellington – far more committed defensively while their dominant scrum set the platform for the backline to run rampant.
Ieremia is well aware Auckland will, however, face much tougher tests this season, starting next week against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua. Ieremia is wary of becoming the next upset victim after Southland and Hawke's Bay pulled off surprise results this weekend. Otago claiming the Ranfurly Shield from Taranaki also denied Auckland a challenge in two weeks.
"It just goes to show if you're not on your best game you're going to get spanked," Ieremia said. "It's exciting for the fans, not for the coaches."
Enjoying front-foot ball throughout dynamic wings AJ Lam, who claimed two tries, and Salesi Rayasi impressed on the edges. All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu delivered a telling cameo off the bench in the second half.
Four first-half tries – to Lam, Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa, Hickey and Rayasi – pushed Auckland out to a commanding 26-5 halftime advantage after they made the most of a big breeze in the first spell.
Manawatu did not help their cause, conceding two yellow cards in the first half. Lock Paulo Teofilo was fortunate not to cop a red card after he flattened Jordan Trainor with what appeared a shoulder to the head after the Auckland fullback spilt the ball in the ninth minute. Referee Dan Waenga deemed Trainor's ducking motion saved Teofilo from being sent off.
Loosehead prop Tietie Tuimauga received the second yellow card for repeat scrum infringements but wing Adam Boult pulled off a superb finish to claim Manawatu's first try while the visitors were reduced to 13 men.
Once restored to their full contingent Manawatu managed to claim the final try but, on this occasion, they were never in the same league.
The only team below Manawatū on the Championship ladder is Counties Manukau, who fell to a 24-15 defeat to Northland in Pukekohe.
The Steelers led 12-3 at halftime but Northland stormed home to claim their second victory and deny the hosts a bonus point, leaving them still to get off the mark in 2020.
Auckland 50 (AJ Lam 2, Simon Hickey 2, Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa, Salesi Rayasi, Blake Gibson, Jordan Trainor tries; Hickey 5 cons)
Manawatu 12 (Adam Boult, Sam Stewart tries; B Wyness con)
Northland 24 (Temo Mayanavanua, Jordan Olsen, Pisi Leilua tries; Dan Hawkins 3 cons, pen)
Counties Manukau 15 (Kieran Read, Alamanda Motuga tries; Baden Kerr con, pen)