With the regular season behind them, the qualifying teams put all their efforts into the Mitre 10 Cup Semi Finals this weekend in New Zealand (NZ).

Four teams competed this weekend for Premiership semi final places, as four teams competed for the Championship places; within their division. These eight were the best performing sides after a ten week competition.  There were also four Heartland Championship semifinals across the country, with both the Meads and Lochore Cups places up for grabs.

That equaled a total of eight quality matches, added to the two International tests at Eden Park. Rugby fans (including this reporter) were in ‘rugby heaven’ so Last Word On Sports hopes you enjoy this NZ Rugby Grandstand overview of results, the the draw for next weeks competition finals.

Mitre 10 Cup Semi Finals

Results: Otago 27 Bay of Plenty 20 | Welington 37 North Harbour 40 | Canterbury 22 Counties-Manukau 7 | Taranaki 29 Tasman 41

Two home team wins, and two away team wins shows that in a couple of the matches, it was an upset. In these high-stakes games, with so much on the line, the stakes are not any higher–teams must be at their very best, to proceed to the final.

Otago have adopted the same defense-minded game that has been successful for Canterbury. It brought them early success in their home semi final, with two tries as they had the better first half and led 14-6. A third try gave them a good stance, but when captain Tom Franklin was binned, that was 14 on 15.

Bay of Plenty needed to use all their wits to benefit but sadly for them, they profited with just three solitary points. Te Aihe Toma was one of their best, and tried right up to the last–a try after 76 minutes was too little too late, as the Bay bowed out of the playoffs.

North Harbour play the Game of their Careers

No description can adequately support this match outcome. It was a triumph of will by the Harbour side, and unfortunately for Wellington, it underlines their poor finals record.

In the game of their careers, a courageous Harbour side had to be enterprising in this match, to repel Wellington. With a perfect start from Tevita Li (main picture) the entire match was a tit-for-tat affair. At 18-20, the game lay in the balance, but was pure excitement for fans. At 30-30 after 80 minutes, extra time was played, with the visitors showing newfound composure, to win 37-40.

In claiming a famous victory, Harbour sealed the fate of the Lions, who had dropped several matches and ended their season badly. Brad Shields had to rely on young reserves, which could not save the team from being up-ended; and continue the horror run for that proud NPC region. Harbour now attend their first final since the ‘Battle of the Bridge’ in 1994.

Reigning Champions claim home final

No more can be said of the Canterbury team of the last decade, than ‘finals rugby performers’. Under several coaches, they have reached the final four and in most cases, played some of their best rugby. Critical to their success, as others fade under the spotlight. Only one week ago, up at Pukekohe where Counties managed a superb home victory over Canterbury–only for the home side to ‘turn it on’ this weekend.

With the just named All Black touring Barrett brothers, a determined Canterbury were comfortable at this point of the season. Opposition coach Daryl Suasua probably wanted to have that same inner confidence from his men, but it failed them. For 60 minutes, they were subdued, until leading scorer (and Crusader) Jordan Taufua crossed.

The single highlight for that side, as they watched the home team play an almost faultless game to reach yet another final. Richie Mounga has developed fantastically, and along with a powerhouse scrum, they have all the qualities required in 2016.

Tasman pour on try’s to reach final

The team from the top of the South Island have been a revelation since forming in 2006, with a free-running Tasman style that can overwhelm the opposition. In Sunday’s semi final at the Bullring, they doused the Taranaki hosts with 21 unanswered points that put them into their second NPC final.

While the dangerous Declan O’Donnell helped pull back points in the second half, a last-gasp try for local hero Marty Banks gave Tasman one hand on the Mitre 10 Cup title–with only Canterbury now stopping Tasman from a first division one title.

Mitre 10 Cup Finals

Friday October 28 – Otago v North Harbour, Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dunedin. 7:35pm (NZT)

Saturday October 29 – Canterbury v Tasman, AMI Stadium, Christchurch. 7:35pm (NZT)

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Heartland Championship Semi finals

The leading sides of the lower division provincial championships, competed for the top prizes on Saturday afternoon. Local pride was again on the line, with many towns celebrating the event over this Labour weekend.

For the teams, the holidays needed to be put aside, as they worked towards team goals set-out months ago. The semi finals proved some teams as home town heroes, while two other teams rode in and stole the locals thunder.

Results: Mid Canterbury 24 North Otago 36King Country 48 Poverty Bay 26 | Wanganui 58 Wairarapa Bush 26 | South Canterbury 6 Buller 16

The two South Island matches will be notable for a couple of upsets. Firstly, North Otago proved that an early lead, can be too wide a gap for some teams to bridge. Leading 8-20, they managed a great away victory by outlasting any attempt by Mid Canterbury to recover, and traveling fans were well not shy in voicing their delight.

Simon Lilicama of North Otago breaks out of the tackle of Jordan Stewart of Mid Canterbury during the Heratland Lochore Cup match between Mid Canterbury and North Otago on October 22, 2016 in Ashburton, New Zealand. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)
Simon Lilicama of North Otago breaks out of the tackle of Jordan Stewart of Mid Canterbury (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

Buller ride their luck to deny home side

Down the road, South Canterbury too saw their home fans leave empty handed. Buller rode over the Southern Alps, and rode their luck as much as form, to repel the home side 6-16. Just the three tries scored proved that ‘finals footy’ was more intense. The ball security and kicks were used across both sides, with Buller the more intent on reaching the final.

Back up in the North Island, it seemed home teams would fair much better. None more than formidable champions Wanganui. After saving some energy from a week earlier, they ran out to a 32-6 lead, which was all too much in the end. Credit to Wairarapa Bush, in clawing back some points [26] but it was only half as good as the ‘Butcher Boys’ managed in front of a large, boisterous home crowd.

King Country secure place in final

Down in Taupo, the challenge was much more fierce. In a classic, provincial fight, the visiting Poverty Bay side were a real threat. Even as the first half benefited the King Country Rams (mostly), at 22-12 it was still a pressure cooker. Not known this season for game control, today the side managed an all important first try of the second 40 minutes.

That proved to be key. Coach Daniel Alofa was very pleased that his men held their nerve. “That’s the pleasing thing about it, we played two halves,” and while Poverty Bay added 14 points, and kept a nose in the game, it was all too much for the East Coast side.

Heartland Championship finals, Saturday October 29

Lochore Cup final – King Country v North Otago, Te Kuiti. 1:35pm

Meads Cup final –  Wanganui v Buller, Cooks Gardens. 4:35pm

Sadly, Sir Colin Meads will not be able to attend the final, as he is continuing to battle Pancreatic Cancer. The former-All Blacks captain is an icon of New Zealand rugby, and both Wanaganui and Buller will play in his honour.

Sir Brian Lochore will likely be on hand to distribute the cup that bears his name, when the grassroots are celebrated in the Te Kuiti battle. Both finals represent the best values of provincial rugby, and Last Word On Sports wishes those teams, and the Mitre 10 Cup finalist all the very best next weekend.

“Main photo credit”

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