After two years absence, the traditional Battle of the Bridge fixture was renewed in Albany yesterday. North Harbour hosted their neighbour and rival Auckland and claimed an historic win over their Premiership opponents.
On a calm, bright afternoon, the cards fell the way of Harbour Rugby, who turned the tables on Auckland to record their largest win. 57-10 is the highest score for the province over Auckland – the second worse loss ever for Auckland.
Auckland head coach Nick White will feel that his side were off their game, only days after a loss to Waikato. While not an excuse, the format of two matches in a week has not worked in Auckland’s favour. It will have put pressure on the side, which they did not answer very well. When asked, Patrick Tuipulotu was unable to inspire his men, as his opposite was able to.
James Parsons, the Harbour skipper, was both a forthright leader and try scorer, as his side controlled the game from start to finish. He was surrounded by men who played their parts, as the visitors failed to defeat the more precise approach from the hosts.
Harbour 57 – Tries: S Stevenson (2), M Duffie, T Li (2), J Parsons, B Volavola; Conversions: B Gatland (5); Penalties: Gatland (4)
Auckland 10 – Try: G Moala; Con: J Hickey; Pen: Hickey
Harbour Turn the Tables on Auckland in ‘Battle of the Bridge’ 2017
From a pure rugby perspective, the game on Auckland’s North Shore has not been in a stronger position since the mid 1990’s. With an established side, coloured with a wealth of local stars who have now done their apprenticeship. Parsons is one, the co-captain has taken his time with the Blues and his single test in All Black colours, to now demonstrate leadership required in a high performing team. Matt Vaega, Bryn Hall and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, all have the fundamentals to perform at this level.
Harbour benefited this afternoon from consistency, with players who had performed in the opening two wins again at the fore. Shaun Stevenson; returning to his boyhood region,has found his feet at fullback. He is adding touches of brilliance, as much as his solid defense. Twice he was rewarded for instinctively being able to sense the opportunity.
And when Harbour found good territory, they struck home the advantage. And an area where they held that, was in the forwards. Chris Eaves; another player brought in who has that experience, with Super Rugby champions the Hurricanes, was in dominant form.
Harbour Forwards Both Precise and Powerful
Eaves was a power in the close-in battles. He and his fellow forwards worked in cluster-groups, one or two off the ruck. Driven around the park by a confident Bryn Hall, repeated drives earned both territory, and appeared to drain the Auckland defenders. The ploy was effective, and after 23 minutes, the strategy worked. Good field position saw wide passes create an overlap for Matt Vaega on the right. He fed co-captain Matt Duffie who is now an assured rugby player–rather than a league convert.
Harbour then set about turning the tables at scrum time. Tuipulotu, Greg Pleasants-Taite and Blake Gibson are the most competent Auckland forwards, surrounded by young men with little games under their belt. Harbour targeted the setpiece, and progressively over the game, would ‘boss them around’. Often, the Auckland ball would not be hooked back, losing three out of eight scrums, that didn’t allow Dan Bowden the solid base he is more used to.
Bowden would have little impact, and sadly for him, he would leave the game after a horrific clash with a Tevita Li thigh that knocked him out. Medical staff isolating his neck, as he was stretchered off. That moment changed the course of the game, as Auckland had scored their only try just before that incident. After it, the traffic was one way; the ball bounced Harbour’s way.
Battle of the Bridge Secures Harbour Bonus Point Win
At 28-10, the second half is often the downfall of Harbour. They can lose concentration, yet in front of a boisterous home crowd, they went up a gear after 60 minutes. Forwards were now gaining more meters; backs were kicking for space and their defense turned the ball over at a constant rate. Nick White will dread his teams ball security, with 20 turnovers and 17 clean breaks from the opposition. His side were unmotivated in the final quarter.
Tevita Li scored off of one brilliant Hall turnover, when he reached in and stole Auckland ball. Then, to the delight of the crowd, Parsons ran onto an intercept ball to score easily. That took the wind out of the boys from the ‘City of Sails’. Heads dropped, and a further two tries made it one of the worst days ever for the big brother.
And such is sport. With less focus and certainty, Auckland gave away too much possession, territory and ball, so it was a gift for the home side. Celebrating Club Day, each player represented not just the union, but their club, friends and family, and didn’t want to let them down.
Their first win over Auckland in eight years, it was a tremendous occasion which places Harbour near the top of the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership.
Harbour Fans Delighted, at Auckland Rugby’s Expense
As the hooter sounded at fulltime, and with a record 57-10 score, the crowd ran onto the field. A euphoric atmosphere, with children running out to meet their favourite players. Families and spectators mingled with the team, in a tradition of days past. The ‘rugby united’ feeling shows a region confident in their team, and the future.
Auckland will feel like they badly let themselves and their fans down. Former players; like coach Nick White and Eroni Clarke (who Last Word on Rugby chatted with after the game) feel that that team needs to find it’s feet. “Nah, it was Harbours day. Not good,” were the comments from Clarke, who’s son Caleb plays for Auckland.
On the other side, Matt Vaega had a massive impact. With three try assists, he is distributing the ball expertly. “It’s good to get the win today. There is a lot of hype around the battle of the bridge.
“But it’s early days, only round three and we’ll move onto the next game.”
And for Tom Coventry and his side, they are certainly ‘not done yet’. They must not celebrate too early, and sit ideally on the ladder. Crucially, with a high points differential, they have taken the right steps towards re-establishing Harbour as a team not to be disrespected.
Continue like this, and it will be hard to wipe the smiles from their fans faces.
“Main photo credit”
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