Although known for their flashy backs, Counties Manukau unleashed a powerful forward display to overcome Waikato 35-26 and leap to the top of the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership ladder in Pukekohe.
It was destined to be a good day for the front rowers when Counties Manukau tighthead prop Kalolo Tuiloma crossed for a remarkable hat trick after just 17 minutes to stun Waikato early. The Mooloos looked fatigued from a brutal Ranfurly Shield challenge against Taranaki and Tuiloma swooped with three well taken tries. It was the first hat trick for a prop in the National Provincial Championship since Wellington’s Brian McGrattan in 1984 and left Waikato needing to chase the game.
Needing something special to get back in the game, Waikato got it through dynamic midfielder Willis Halaholo who cut through the Steelers defence to feed right wing Iliesa Ratuva for a try against the run of play.
The try served to quell the Steelers early momentum and gave the visitors a chance to rally. Waikato first five Sam Christie got some much needed territory for the under fire visitors to slow the scoring before Piers Francis knocked over a penalty to close out the half 22-5 to the Steelers.
Counties Manukau continued their forward domination in the second half with a try to hooker Gafatasi Su’a from a line out drive to make it 27-5. If Waikato were hoping for respite upfront from Counties Manukau, it wasn’t coming from the bench as recent All Blacks Pauliasi Manu and Hika Elliot came on to the field.
While the forwards were on song for Counties, the contribution of 9-10 combination Augustine Pulu and Piers Francis cannot be discounted. Pulu was dynamic with ball in hand and powerful on defence while Francis was precise with his line kicking and decision making.
Waikato came back with tries to lock Brad Tucker and replacement prop Steven Misa to secure a four try bonus point but it was the Steelers day as Pulu set up wing Sione Fifita to confirm the bonus point 35-26 win.
The victory has taken Counties Manukau to the top of the ladder on 24 points but they have played two more games than second placed Canterbury on 21 points. Waikato have moved to clear fourth ahead of Auckland courtesy of their four try bonus point.
Augustine Pulu said: “We have a couple of good ball runners so it’s easy for me because our forwards are moving in the right direction. Credit to our forwards tonight.”
COUNTIES MANUKAU – 35
Tries: Kalolo Tuiloma (1,10,16),Gafatasi Su’a (42),Sione Fifita (62)
Penalties: Piers Francis (33,60)
Cons: Piers Francis (2,17)
WAIKATO – 26
Tries: Iliesa Ratuva (24),Brad Tucker (52),Steven Misa (66),Jason Robertson (74)
Cons: Sam Christie (53),Jason Robertson (67,75)