Counties kept alive their hopes of making the ITM Cup play-offs after overcoming Auckland 41-18 with a try bonus-point on Thursday.
Counties kept alive their slim hopes of making the ITM Cup semi-finals after overcoming Auckland 41-18 with a try bonus-point in Pukekohe on Thursday.
The Steelers are now one point off their opposition and go into Sunday’s finale at Tasman confident. They must also hope Northland beat Auckland.
Sonny Bill Williams made his return to rugby union in the game, coming on for Bundee Aki in the 59th minute of his side’s impressive six-try showing.
Counties took the lead on two minutes when fly-half Ahsee Tuala landed a penalty attempt but Auckland struck back six minutes later when Ofa Tu’ungafasi crossed the whitewash to make it 3-5. Unfortunately for the visitors, fly-half Gareth Anscombe missed the resulting conversion.
The Steelers would steady themselves by the 20 minute mark though, and when referee Kane McBride awarded them a penalty try and sent Junior Poluleuligaga to the sin-bin for slapping the ball down as Counties went wide, the door was open for the hosts to pull away.
Although they didn’t add to their tally in those ten minutes, wing Frank Halai did go over three minutes before the break for a 15-5 cushion as the two teams went to the changing rooms.
Paul Feeney’s team-talk clearly lifted his Auckland charges as Anscombe’s penalty goal on 44 minutes brought the visiting team within seven points of their opponents in Pukekohe.
However, Counties would steady themselves and when fly-half Tuala went in under the posts before Tim Nanai-Williams’ extras made it 22-8, it looked like the match was now beyond Auckland, with All Black centre Williams still to emerge from the replacements bench.
Anscombe did land his second penalty of the game on 54 minutes but when Halai crossed for his brace, the bonus-point was secured by Counties before scrum-half Augustine Pulu and Auckland replacement Jack Whetton traded tries to make it 34-18 with ten minutes left.
Replacement Sam Henwood added Counties Manukau’s sixth try and the gloss on full-time.
Tries: Penalty, Halai 2, Tuala, Pulu, Henwood
Con: Tuala, Nanai-Williams, Stanley 2
Tries: Tu’ungafasi, Whetton
Pen: Anscombe 2
Counties Manukau: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rey Lee-lo, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Andy Muirhead, 10 Ahsee Tuala, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Dan Hyatt, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Jimmy Tupou, 4 Sikeli Nabou, 3 Jarrod Firth, 2 Suliasi Taufalele, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Sione Anga’aelangi, 17 Sean Bagshaw, 18 Viliami Rarasea, 19 Sam Henwood, 20 Kane Hancy, 21 Mike Stanley, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
Auckland: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 George Moala, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Junior Poluleuligaga, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Sean Polwart, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Liaki Moli, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 Gafatasi Sua, 17 Nick Barrett, 18 Jack Whetton, 19 Blake Gibson, 20 Leon Fukofuka, 21 TJ Faiane, 22 Simon Hickey.
Referee: Kane McBride