In last weeks edition of the NZ Rugby Grandstand column, the challenge was who might be in line to make the knock-out stages. In the conclusion of Week Nine Mitre 10 Cup action, we now know who they are.

Not only did the Mitre 10 Cup provincial competition wrap-up, but the Heartland Championship also reached the final week. While those provincial sides were not positioned so closely, every side was still motivated to perform to their best.

No distraction this week from International rugby, as the All Blacks rested before the final Bledisloe Cup game next weekend at Eden Park. It meant that Aaron Cruden was able to stretch out for his province Manawatu–a rare outing for the star first-five.

Week Nine Mitre 10 Cup

ResultsNorth Harbour 27 Tasman 27 (draw) | Taranaki 35 Auckland 32 | Manawatu 14 Otago 21 | Counties-Manukau 33 Canterbury 21 | Hawke’s Bay 24 Bay of Plenty 26 | Wellington 24 Waikato 28Tasman 56 Southland 0 | Northland 28 Harbour 44

You might need to add an adjective title to some of the results from this week. With pressure mounting, many games had all the characteristics of a ‘blockbuster movie’. Beginning on Wednesday–Harbour v Tasman. A tit-for-tat affair, both sides matched the other in scoring movements. 7-3-3-7-7=27 points scored equally, by each side.

Marty Banks had the chance to seal a win, but he hit the posts and that ended time. A thrilling storyline, which left Harbour ‘unbeaten’ at home. Each side had to recover for Sunday’s double-header match, and yes two points each was not quite the full-reward each team had scripted.

Auckland sunk in the Bull ring

A terrible result for the big-city team, who were run down by a bullocking Taranaki. Not even the silky skills of Rieko Ioane could hide some frailty in Auckland’s game. The ‘Naki boys are tough, well drilled and know their roles. It was the power game of Seta Tamanivalu and elusive Declan O’Donnell that helped cause an upset win for Taranaki.

Naki win
Mitchell Graham of Taranaki celebrates with teammates, after a win (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

The win built on an improved second-half of the season. Fans were well rewarded, even though captain Mitchell Crosswell failed to pass a concussion test. They will want him to be fit for their next challenge–a home semi final place.

By the Friday night, fans saw a terrific effort from Otago. Bashed recently by Premiership sides, in a season highlight, the Southern men earned this win. Firstly with some good attack–Michael Collins; signed by the Blues, showed his class. Alongside first-five Scott Eade, they took any chance given. The home side were unable to control the game from the start, which would come back to haunt them.

Manawatu left unsatisfied

Some might suggest Manawatu are the least satisfied team in NPC (possibly shaded by Hawke’s Bay) they let Otago build a strong lead, and try as heartedly as they could, it was another game lost. Fighting back from 7-21 down, not even Cruden’s wonderful offloads could save them. The final few minutes might have seen a try scored, but the referee was unsighted–today’s rulings are less optimistic than in the past. No try was judged and Callum Gibbons men were bemused and dissatisfied yet again.

One team that did end their week wholly satisfied were Counties-Manukau. They had the belief to show good endeavour on their home turf, up against the favourites Canterbury. Playing within themselves, it showed in a 7-6 halftime score. Fans probably expected this to continue in a test match atmosphere but thankfully the South Auckland side decided to ‘roll the dice’.

Jordie Barrett slotted a third penalty, but from there the Steelers took the advantage. Even with key players removed, replacement first-five Luteru Laulala was a revelation. Supported by Chiefs winger Tony Pulu and an athletic pack, they overhauled and surpassed the more fancied team. Playing for their fans, with the sun shining down, it buoyed the side and they played a great game to win 33-21. Well played, and they enter the semi finals full of self confidence.

Match of the Round – Hawke’s Bay 24 v Bay of Plenty 26

In an example of the saying ‘never give up’ the smaller union drove down to Napier and took home the title of the Bay for 2016. This season, a more stoic Bay of Plenty have been challenging more often than not. Opposite them were a Hawke’s Bay team who could have played better–never looking comfortable in the Premiership division.

The footage above only shows half of the spirit and unity that Bay of Plenty (BOP) displayed. Over the season they scored plenty of points, finishing many games within a whisker to claim multiple bonus points. That is the sign of a team with grit. Something missing from the home side, as BOP fullback Lalakai Foketi and half Te Aihe Tomas showed, the Bay play with their hearts on their sleeves.

A good comeback was ‘only just’ withstood, but even the home fans knew something was not right with the Magpies. Hard to accept; dropping back down to the Championship, but if they hold their heads up, learn to play as a unit, then 2017 might be a different story.

Waikato do their best to reach semi finals

Several teams showed the resolve needed in professional sport. Waikato had wasted many games, and with a slight chance, needed to maximize their chances. Wellington had done the same, but were finding it hard to stay motivated. Young and exciting, they lacked the experience needed to close out a match.

The result was theirs,  24-14 and only ten minutes left, they took their eyes off the prize. Costing many teams, Damian McKenzie used his turbo-switch to good affect. A quick Sevu Reece try gave them hope, and a jubilant Stephen Donald was on hand to run in a game winning try.

The hosts were downtrodden. While they had secured a home semi final place, form is running away from them. How will the Lions prepare for next week? Earl Va’a will want his men to get their ‘claws out’ for this next game….before they drop any advantage earned early this year.

Season defining Sunday

The two sides who battled out the 27-all draw on Wednesday wanted to put down a marker. Tasman would be able to somersault over Waikato with a good win. Southland were up to visit, and sadly for them, they felt the Mako’s bite. A 56-0 drubbing was a demonstration of the Tasman teams potential, and it elevated them into third place in the Premiership. It may prove ‘third time lucky’ for the Mako’s in 2016.

At the top of the country, Northland were hopeful they could delight their fans. With good intent, both sides used the ball but it all went to North Harbour’s planning. Steve Jackson had his men all on-song, and it built on a fine halftime buffer to solidify the North Shore teams status.

Appearing in the sides first semi final for a ‘lifetime’, it was a great outcome–although the six-tries-to-four victory needs the Harbour side to be sure they do their homework on the Lions next weekend. Let in points like they did near the end in a semi final, and knockout football could quickly end your season flat.

MITRE 10 CUP SEMI FINALS

  • Otago v Bay of Plenty, Forsyth-Barr Stadium – Friday October 21, 7:35pm (C)
  • Wellington v North Harbour, Westpac Stadium – Saturday October 22, 2:35pm (C)
  • Canterbury v Counties, AMI Stadium – Sunday October 23, 2:05pm (P)
  • Taranaki v Tasman, Yarrow Stadium – Sunday October 23, 4:35pm (P)
(C) for Championship teams, and (P) for Premiership teams

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Heartland Championship

While the clear leading side Wanganui appeared to have a home semi final wrapped-up, as the points table stood several teams had the opportunity to exchange places–results could see teams upset, so a few key matches would be all important.

Due to the nature of the qualifying structure, the top four sides progress to the Meads Cup, while positions five-to-eight will contest for the Lochore Cup.

Results: Thames Valley 14 Poverty Bay 50 | Wanganui 20 Horowhenua-Kapiti 12 | West Coast 54 North Otago 42 | King Country 38 Buller 40South Canterbury 14 Mid Canterbury 0 | Wairarapa Bush 44 East Coast 22

Some results appeared to be somewhat predictable. Wanganui at a canter. Wairarapa Bush made short work of East Coast, while South Canterbury held their neighbours to zero points, claiming the Hanan Shield (below).

MIDvSTH
Kieran Coll of South Canterbury presents the Hanan Shield following match against Mid Canterbury (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Others, were complete surprises. This reporter did not see the huge upset, as West Coast pressed the exhilarator hard. Running out a 44-14 halftime lead, it took all their resolve to claim a famous 54-42 victory over North Otago.

Poverty Bay proved that mid-season form was not a blip, when punishing Thames Valley in Paeroa. And the thriller match was played in Taupo. King Country invited Buller to the lakeside venue in what was an exceptional game. The South Island team are no pushovers, and withstood the pressure to claim consecutive wins over the Rams.

HEARTLAND CHAMPIONSHIP FINALS SERIES

(all matches October 22, 2:30pm)

  • Lochore Cup Semi 1: Mid Canterbury v North Otago, Ashburton
  • Lochore Cup Semi 2: King Country v Poverty Bay, Te Kuiti
  • Meads Cup Semi 1: Wanganui v Wairarapa Bush, Cooks Gardens
  • Meads Cup Semi 2: South Canterbury v Buller, Timaru

These may prove to be matches that will shade their Mitre 10 Cup rivals, such is the intensity sides bring to provincial rugby. Playing under the knockout rules, expect plenty of attack and more of the high scoring results that make this an exciting division to follow.

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Last Word On Sport wish all sides all the very best for the play-off matches.

“Main photo credit”

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