Three tries to wing Johnny McNicholl punctuated a dominant performance from Canterbury during their 50-33 national provincial championship pre-season win over an inexperienced Wellington Lions at Rugby League Park.
With a number of All Blacks in their starting side Canterbury shot out of the blocks to lead 28-0 after the first half hour before the home side finally worked their way into the match.
McNicholl was the standout with his busy work rate, pace and ability to beat the first defender bringing him a deserved hat-trick of tries.
Canterbury’s two current All Blacks, openside Matt Todd and prop Joe Moody, both got through the match unscathed. Todd was impressive in his 57 minutes, while Moody was part of a dominant pack before he subbed off along with big lock Dominic Bird on the 55 minute mark.
Fringe All Black Tom Taylor also enjoyed a strong match for the red and blacks, converting all four of his side’s first half tries and scoring their last to finish with a personal tally of 15 points, while young fullback Tulolo Tulolo looked a player of some talent.
Canterbury finished with eight tries in all and were the more accurate and physical of the two sides for most of the match with Todd, captain Luke Whitelock, and Bird all prominent early.
However, Wellington, with three players on debut in their starting fifteen and a further four on the reserves, didn’t walk away empty handed.
Captain and No 8 Brad Shields and lock Vaea Fifita were the pick of the home team, while Jeff Toomaga-Allen was a willing ball carrier with reserve hooker Hunter Prescott busy and accurate in his first match at this level.
There was also the feel good sight of prop John Schwalger returning to the field for the final 23 minutes after 16 months out due to blood clots on his lungs.
The young Lions managed five tries of their own with new first five eighth Jonny Bentley showing enough to suggest he will settle nicely into the play making role with a bit more time in the saddle.
Bentley was generally sound and scored his side’s final try, but Wellington were inaccurate in the first half with poor clearing kicks and handling errors gifting Canterbury extra attacking ball.
McNicholl and Tuolo were eager to run and with a big pack ahead of them and a roving Todd they found holes in the Lions’ defence.
Hooker Ben Funnell was first to score from a lineout drive before McNicholl sold young centre Tomasi Alosio a dummy then skipped past his tackle to make it 14-0 early.
Todd shot blind a few minutes later and McNicholl had little trouble finishing off in the corner, Taylor’s sideline conversion making it 21-0 in as many minutes.
Wellington were falling off too many tackles and when another errant kick failed to find grass, McNicholl was off again, this time feeding the ball inside to first five Richie Mo’unga to sprint 50 metres for the try and an imposing 28-0 lead.
Wellington finally gained some possession and held it long enough to get ball carriers like Toomaga-Allen into the match.
The reward was a try to Fifita, but it came at a cost with wing Sam McNicol leaving with what looked like a head knock, and hooker Leni Apisai with a leg injury.
Wellington started well after the break with Prescott running a nice angle off a ruck to score early, but undid their good work when McNicholl intercepted a wide Bentley miss pass to run in his hat-trick.
When reserve Tom Sanders barged over to make it 40-14 a rout looked possible, but to their credit Wellington – aided by some mass subs from Canterbury – didn’t fold.
The final 15 minutes saw both sides continue to attack. Shields scored one try himself and set up the final five-pointer with a brilliant fend and offload to Bentley, while reserve back Marvin Karawana scored in between times.
Canterbury kept piling on the points too, replacement halfback Jack Stratton stretching over and Taylor scoring after a nifty break from Tuolo.
Canterbury 50 (Johnny McNicholl 3, Ben Funnell, Richie Mo’unga, Tom Sanders, Jack Stratton, Tom Taylor tries, Taylor 5 cons)
Wellington 33 (Vaea Fifita, Hunter Prescott, Brad Shields, Marvin Karawana, Jonathan Bentley tries, Bentley 4 cons).
HT: 28-7 (Canterbury)