Jade Stadium, at Lancaster Park
Referee: Steve Walsh Jnr
Waikato 20 - Canterbury 6
Awwwh crap! The Mooloo jinx continues, that makes 4 NPC losses in a row for Canterbury against the Waikato, stretching back to the 97 season.
Before I say anything else let me just say that this was a great game to watch, the final score doesn't really reflect how close the match was, although I have to admit that Waikato had the best of the second half and deserved the win.
As predicted the game was mainly contested in the forwards, with the Canterbury pack having the better of the game overall, including devastating the much vaunted Waikato pack in the scrums. On numerous occasions in the second half Waikato even elected to kick for touch rather than pack down against the red 'n black engine room.
There isn't much gain from dominating in the tight stuff when you turn the ball over in open play though, and that's what Canterbury really had trouble with. While the young backline played well they lacked the direction that Mehrts provided in the Crusaders campaign, both in their tactical kicking and in their option taking on the counter-attack.
This wasn't helped by the fact that things were shuffled around when Arnold came on and moved into first-five (and MacDonald moved out to the 12 spot) when the promising young second-five Joe Naufahu went off with a shin injury in the first 15 minutes. The inside back combos were further re-arranged when Lillie replaced Arnold late in the second spell.
The half-time score was 6-3 to Canterbury, and at that stage they looked to be gaining ascendancy, dominating first half territory 60%-40% and possession narrowly. Waikato started the second half strongly though, and through some concerted pressure, set up camp in the Canterbury 22' and finally scored a try through Dion Muir after a series of lineouts on the Canterbury tryline. Cooper coolly converted to give Waikato a 10-6 lead and added a penalty a few minutes later to extend it out to 13-6 with about 15 minutes to go in the game.
Canterbury responded, got some good possession and rumbled their way into the Waikato '22, with the Mooloo forwards being forced to infringe in order to stop the Canterbury momentum. This set up perhaps the defining moment of the game, when Canterbury opted to take the lineout from the penalty about 10m away from the Waikato line. Darryl Lillie nonchalantly kicked the ball for touch, as you do, looking to set up the lineout, but Waikato lock Chresten Davis had other ideas. He leapt forward and plucked the ball out of the air as it sailed for the touchline and caught the entire stadium napping as he galloped away down the sideline. Canterbury were able to bring him down but play ended with a defensive Canterbury lineout inside their own half rather than an attacking one 10m from the Waikato line and the pendelum swung back to Waikato.
Interestingly the Sky commentator on the sideline said that Davis had put a foot into touch just after he burgled the kick, but because he had caught the touch judge and referee off-guard no one saw it. This no call, combined with a blatant forward pass from out-of-form winger Randell that the ref missed a few minutes later effectively kept Canterbury pinned in their own half for the remainder of the match, and as so often happens when you are trying to play catchup football with the clock ticking down they gave away a try to Rhys Duggan on the final whistle.
Players that stood out for me were:
For Waikato - Chresten Davis, Rhys Duggan and Dion Muir, with Duggan having a brilliant game behind an unsteady pack. Dion Muir is terribly underated by the AB selectors I would have to say, why he didn't get a crack last season ahead of Isi Maka I don't know.
For Canterbury - Ben Blair, Scott Robertson and Con Barrell. Blair was everywhere, especially in the first half, kicking goals and taking everything that the Waikato backline threw at him like he was a vetern rather than the rookie he is. Scott Robertson showed the AB selectors that he is the man to back up Josh in the WC squad, and is a great lineout option as well. Barrell was responsible for most of the damage in the scrums, the man is a beast!
All in all Waikato deserved to win the game, but it would have been nice for Canterbury to get closer, and at least come away with a bonus point. It reminded me a bit of the S12 round robin game between Canterbury and Otago, where Otago finished well ahead on points but in reality the game was so close.
I guess we will just have to save our revenge on the Mooloo men until next time. It'll keep!
See ya in the playoffs Waikato!