Contrasting running skills provided a thrilling end to the ITM Cup season proper before Counties Manukau beat Tasman 16-21 in Blenheim on Sunday.
Tasman threw everything into a desperate assault as the final hooter sounded but despite keeping the ball alive for two minutes there was no way through the Counties Manukau defences. As a result Tasman will play Canterbury in Nelson in their semi-final on Saturday night.
The last minute loss when opting to run ball against Taranaki from a last-second penalty came back to haunt Tasman who conceded the minor premiership to Taranaki as a result.
Counties Manukau midfield back Bundee Aki cut holes in the Tasman defence all game and while there were inconsistencies in the ability to make the most of chances created, Counties Manukau deserved the win.
Counties Manukau were unlucky not to have had more points on the board by half-time. Lock Sikeli Nabou looked to have gone over after some intensive Counties Manukau scrum pressure but he was ruled to have been held up in-goal. Then from the resulting scrum No.8 Maama Vaipulu was also ruled to have missed out when the TMO Chris Wratt couldn’t see the ball grounded.
It was almost inevitable after Tasman couldn’t get the ball over the line that the turnaround would come courtesy of a penalty, and so it proved. Tasman cleared their line and Saifoloi punished them with a second penalty goal after 19 minutes.
From the re-start No.8 Liam Squire carried the ball forward and Tasman swept downfield winning another penalty chance in front of the posts to go to a 9-0 lead.
However, the danger that Aki had shown in the first quarter was seen to effect when he broke down the right flank to set up good ball which was moved back across field where prop Pauliasi Manu stepped inside his marker and charged over for the try.
Counties Manukau first five-eighths Ahsee Tuala broke effectively on the blindside and then after the breakdown he put a cross kick in which saw wing Tony Pulu secure the ball only to be held by desperate Tasman defence in the corner.
Around the same time, after 32 minutes, Sonny Bill Williams got an early start when centre Ray Lee-lo was forced to leave the field with an injury.
A piece of individual brilliance from fullback Robbie Malneek split the game and ended an indifferent period of play which allowed Tasman to extend their lead. He made the most of some kicking exchanges to dummy his way through the defence and break into open territory to clear out for the goal-line and the try.
Counties Manukau soon after lost Manu who had transferred to the tighthead side of the scrum when he was stretchered from the field with a neck injury.
A Tasman handling mistake proved frustrating as the ball was secured and laid up for replacement back Michael Stanley to cross for a try which gave Counties Manukau what proved to be the winning impetus.
Soon after it was Aki who found more space down the flank and linked with Tim Nanai-Williams and Sam Henwood to set up the chance for flanker Jordan Taufua to score.
Scorers: Tasman 16 (Robbie Malneek try; Rohan Saifoloi 3 pen; Marty Banks con) Counties Manukau 21 (Pauliasi Manu, Mike Stanley Jordan Taufua tries; Ahsee Tuala con; Stanley 2 con). HT: 9-7