Auckland made a statement of intent after securing a deserved 51-16 victory over Southland in Invercargill on Friday.
The visitors outscored Southland by six tries to one with Rieko Ioane crossing for a brace and Simon Hickey delivered an impressive goalkicking display, finishing with a 19-point haul thanks to three penalties and five conversions.
The opening half was an attritional affair with both sides battling to gain the ascendancy. Although there was plenty of enterprising play, both sides impressed on defence and neither side managed to score tries during this period.
Southland opened the scoring in the 10th minute via a Lima Sopoaga penalty but Auckland were soon level thanks to a Simon Hickey three-pointer from the kicking tee.
Hickey added two further penalties but Sopoaga narrowed the gap with his second penalty, four minutes before half-time, which meant the visitors led 9-6 at the interval.
Shortly after the restart, Rieko Ioane intercepted a wayward Southland pass and had an easy run-in before scoring under the posts. Hickey added the extras which gave Auckland some breathing space but Sopoaga added his second penalty five minutes later which meant the home side were still in the match with the score at 16-9 to Auckland.
Southland were dealt a blow early in the second half when Kieran Moffat and Lima Sopoaga received yellow cards in quick succession for similar offences at the breakdown close to their tryline.
Shortly after Sopoaga was sent to the sin bin the visitors made them pay when Joe Ravouvou crossed for their second try, but Southland struck back when former All Black Jimmy Cowan dived over from close quarters for his side’s only try.
With the score at 23-16, the game was still in the balance but Auckland stepped up several gears on attack and posted 28 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes.
Ioane led the way with his second try, after Patrick Tuipulotu and Pryor Collier had crossed for five-pointers earlier, and Kirk Eklund added the final nail in Southland’s coffin shortly before full-time.
Cons: Thompson-Te Muunu
Pens: L Sopoaga 3
Yellow Cards: Moffat, L Sopoaga
Tries: R Ioane 2, Ravouvou, Tuipulotu, Collier, Eklund
Cons: S Hickey 5, J Hickey
Pens: S Hickey 3
Southland: 15 Lima Sopoaga, 14 Mike Molloy, 13 Dylan Collier, 12 Kieran Moffat, 11 Jay Thompson-Te Muunu, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Mika Mafi, 7 Phil Halder, 6 Bill Fukofuka, 5 Matt Phillip, 4 Mike Mckee, 3 Morgan Mitchell, 2 Brayden Mitchell (c), 1 Joe Walsh
Replacements: 16 Ezekiel Sopoaga, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Mike Stewart, 20 Wade McRae, 21 Jahvis Wallace, 22 Junior Ngaluafe, 23 Tauasosi Tuimavave
Auckland: 15 Tyrone Elkington-MacDonald, 14 Joe Ravouvou, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Vince Aso, 11 Pryor Collier, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Leon Fukofuka, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Akira Ioane, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Scott Scrafton, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Tom McHugh, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Michael Fatialofa, 20 Taleni Seu, 21 Jono Hickey, 22 Latiume Fosita, 23 Pasqualle Dunn
Referee: Kane McBride