Last minute victories can sometimes be ‘heart stopping’ for fans and supporters. For North Harbour (Harbour) followers, they had to wait until the 79th minute before Bryn Gatland secured the 2016 Championship victory with a drop goal.

Winning this clutch result 14-17 is both a credit to the team, but also a great exhibition for provincial rugby. The team that few believed could achieve the victory, coming from below to upset the favourites. It is what sport is about, and the team celebrated with vigor post-match (see main picture).

Jubilation on the faces of players, management and supporters who traveled south to Dunedin was clear for all to see. As was the disappointment on the faces of Otago players too. Bested in the final act of the game–a game they appeared to ‘lose the hold of’ midway through the second half.

Harbour Seal 2016 Championship Victory

At 7-11 at halftime, the game was still in the balance. Each team scoring one try, with the Harbour try dubious because of a lack of clear video evidence. The fact it was awarded is still being contested by local fans the day after, but the referee awarded it and that was only one factor in the result.

Coaches will have each called on their men to show their heart and character in the final 40 minutes of the season. Still with 40 minutes to play, whoever scored first was likely in the drivers seat.

Crucially, Harbour gained an early penalty, to extend their lead to seven points. Needing to battle hard for any possession, the visitors could hardly improve on a poor 30% possession statistic in the first half, so defense now was that teams primary goal. For 10 minutes they withstood a great deal of pressure.

Otago had the possession and territory, even when they kicked for the sideline. Keeping the ball in play, they used some damaging offensive-tackling to upset the visitors rhythm. On a number of attacking occasions, they had lineouts close to the line, but poor execution let them down. Finally, with field position, the ball went to All Blacks squad member Tom Franklin, and he did not let them down. The tall co-Captain of Otago drove for the line, and it brought the crowd to their feet, and with Fletcher Smith converting. 14-14, the game was now there for the taking.

Penalty decisions could be questioned

The new trial laws have promoted an attacking mentality. More teams and captains have decided to go for the sidelines, rather than take penalties. Those decisions ‘in the light of day’ might be rued by Paul Grant. The loose forward was one of many who tried their best, but with several missed penalties already, one might concede that it actually was better to play with the ball in hand.

What Harbour achieved across the match was superb. With a player down (Glen Preston) for ten minutes, they withstood a huge deal of pressure. In fact, Tevita Li and high-flying Matt Duffie were often on the offensive. Stout defense won it, but they too had chances to extend the lead–in the end, they knew to set the position up. It came down to a well executed kick, from the son of current Welsh coach and provincial rugby stalwart Warren Gatland.

Championship top seeds undone in Final

Otago had topped the standings since the early part of the season. They had beaten Harbour once already, by a margin of 11 points. Beginning so well, many thought the favourites would canter through the Championship.

What they did not plan for was a form-slump late in the year. It coincided with many inter-division matches against Premiership teams–so the pressure may have told on them. Holding a home ground advantage helped in the semi finals, and should have counted for more on Friday night.

It could be that they were mentally exhausted, and with few All Blacks to hold their footing, it was more than they could manage. Even calling on 38 year old Andrew Hore to repair an injury hole, they lacked experience. Senior players are still not fully established, and that factor will surely have played a part.

Close, but no cigar’ is the saying. Any team denied by a last-minute score will understand how they feel. “We had an opportunity to win it but unfortunately we didn’t. But I’m extremely proud of the way the boys played all year and to get a home final,” coach Cory Brown told the Otago Daily Times.

North Harbour 17 – Michael Little try; Bryn Gatland pen (3) drop goal (1)
Otago 14 – Fa’asiu Fuatai, Tom Franklin tries; Fletcher Smith con (2)

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Promotion to the Premiership in 2017

This is a critical stage in the Harbour Rugby transformation. After years of stagnating, Steve Jackson may have built the catalyst now to progress to new heights. Not to get too far ahead of themselves though, as promotion is primarily status, rather than economic rewards.

In the English Premier League, the jump up from Division One to the elite level is valued at millions of dollars. True, new sponsors may be engaged by Harbour due to last nights win. New packages can be brokered too, with a higher income received due to that. That will enable more funds available, resources and following.

But the reward in gaining entry to Division One [using the old parlance] means more in pride, than any financial reward. The esteemed company is shown in the status of teams: Canterbury, Auckland, Taranaki, et all They still have to train as hard, work as hard–but they can hold their heads higher in 2017.

They are champions now. They earned that elevation (it was not handed to them).

New goals in 2017

The truth now is that head coach Steve Jackson will move up to the Blues, and will not coach for this team again. That has been confirmed by North Harbour–with a new head coach to be announced on another date.

Steve Jackson
Steve Jackson, coach of North Harbour, acknowledges the crowd  (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Assistant Daniel Halangahu told RadioSport that the team had been “wanting to prove people wrong,” in regards to the teams chances. The underdog, and little brother to the bigger Auckland union, Harbour can emerge now from that shadow to accept some accolades.

“It was the key moments that we won”

Halangahu made mention of several key moments in the match. From the big defensive tackles, kicks and especially high-kick takes from the backline. He said that he and Steve would be hugely proud of the teams efforts, and it would set-up the group for a good future.

2017 will have to wait though, as the team returns to the North Shore of Auckland. Expect plenty of celebrations, as fans rejoice in the fact that the team–who few put money on–have taken away a huge prize. Well done, and it shows that any team has every chance to take their opportunities in Rugby.

“Main photo credit”

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