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Auckland take top honours

Photosport

Saturday, October 22, 2005    allblacks.com    Photosport

Six tries and a healthy dollop of finals savvy helped Auckland to their 8th title in 30 years of Air New Zealand NPC rugby.

Conversely, Otago now remain winless in the City of Sails since 1976.

Fresh from dispatching defending champions Canterbury twice in a fortnight, heroic defence kept the Southern men in the running for much of this match despite their opponents enjoying close to 70% of possession and territory in the first-half alone.

Earlier, after opportunities for both teams to test each other at set-pieces, classic outside running from Auckland No 14 Doug Howlett almost saw the homeside score in just the 4th minute of the game. Yet it was Otago who owned the first points as eight powerful phases - and equal doses of patience - put flanker Josh Blackie over.

First-five Nick Evans’ conversion shaved the left-hand upright: 5-0 Otago.

Auckland rallied but unforced knock-ons let their opponents out of jail until a dangerous tackle by Otago centre Neil Brew gifted fullback Brent Ward a 20th minute penalty. The boot of Evans replied immediately with three of his own.

8-3 Otago and the kicking continued - although not successfully - as Ward’s ruthless accuracy abandoned him and he dragged his second attempt wide. But Auckland weren’t easing off the pedal... another wave of phases forcing Otago to live up to their reputation as one of the defensive outfits of the competition.

Something had to break and it did: a snappy lineout move putting Auckland hooker Keven Mealamu in next to the left-hand corner flag. Ward’s sideline conversion in the 33rd minute handed his team the lead for the first time in the final.

Evans couldn’t wrestle it back with a difficult penalty attempt on the halftime hooter.

Halftime score: 10-8 Auckland

Auckland began the second spell the way they ended the first. On fire. As the pressure took its toll, Howlett collected the try that had earlier eluded him with a brilliant piece of finishing - juggling the balls several times before regaining control to crash over in the 47th minute.

15-8 now, and the visitors’ chances of drawing level continued to be hindered by uncharacteristic turnovers.

Then Evans gave his men hope when his 62nd penalty crawled over the crossbar from 27m out, closing the gap to four.

Yet the 66th minute saw the beginning of the end as super-sub Bradley Mika bulldozed his way off the bench and over the tryline. The boot of Ward extended the lead to 22-11.

Three minutes later and more benchwarmers combined to finish off the valiant challengers from the South: substitute second-five Sam Tuitupou smashing into Otago lock Tom Donnelly and forcing yet another turnover... this one collected by his team-mate Ben Atiga who travelled the remaining 38m to the posts unchallenged.

29-11 Auckland.

Playing his last game for the province after six seasons of streamlined service, Auckland centre Mils Muliaina twisted the knife with his team’s fifth try. Replacement No 9 Taniela Moa added his first ever Air New Zealand NPC five-pointer on the death.

Final score: 39-11 Auckland

Scorers

Auckland. Tries: Keven Mealamu, Doug Howlett, Bradley Mika, Ben Atiga, Mils Muliaina, Taniela Moa. Conversions: Brent Ward (3). Penalties: Ward.

Otago. Tries: Josh Blackie. Conversions: Penalties: Evans (2).

The All Blacks squad for the Tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland will be announced on allblacks.com at 10am Sunday morning