Taranaki moved to the top of the ITM Cup table after securing a 35-22 victory over Auckland in New Plymouth on Friday.
The hosts were dominant in the first half and raced into a 22-9 lead thanks to three tries but Auckland upped the ante after the break and were trailing their hosts by three points with 20 minutes left on the clock thanks to a George Moala try.
A flurry of penalties from Marty McKenzie and Gareth Anscombe – as well as a well-taken drop goal from McKenzie – in the closing stages meant Taranaki held a 28-22 lead but an intercept try from Charlie Ngatai secured a bonus point and victory for his side. The five-pointer also broke Auckland hearts as they were trying to clinch the win and it also denied them a losing bonus point.
The game started at a frenetic pace with both sides running the ball at every opportunity. They had little to show for their endeavour, however, until the game’s opening points was eventually registered in the 13th minute when Anscombe added a penalty.
Taranaki had a chance to draw level two minutes later, after Auckland were penalised for illegal scrummaging, but Cody Rei’s shot at goal was off target.
The Amber and Blacks didn’t have to wait long for their first points, however, as Rhys Marshall scored their first try, after gathering a pass from Blade Thomson at the front of a line-out inside Auckland’s 22.
Taranaki’s enterprising play brought them more reward shortly afterwards when Berny Hall rounded off a superb move, after James Marshall, Waisake Naholo and Seta Tamanivalu combined brilliantly in the build-up.
McKenzie converted both tries which meant the home side held a 14-3 lead but Anscombe reduced the deficit to eight points with another successful penalty in the 25th minute.
This was the signal for Taranaki to increase the pressure and their efforts were rewarded when Tamanivalu powered his way over the try-line after the hosts had taken the ball through several phases inside Auckland’s 22.
The visitors didn’t look like crossing the whitewash but Anscombe added his third penalty in the 35th minute after Taranaki infringed on defence.
McKenzie then slotted a penalty on the stroke of half-time, after Peter Saili was pinged for offside play.
Auckland made their intentions known, shortly after the break, when Saili set off on a bullocking run from the back of a scrum, midway between Taranaki’s 22 and their 10-metre line, but he was stopped just short of the line by the combined efforts of three defenders.
The visitors were attacking more after the break and were eventually rewarded when Moala stepped past three defenders to score their only try in the 53rd minute.
Anscombe added the extras, and with Taranaki now leading 22-16, Auckland were right back in the game. Another Anscombe penalty in the 58th minute meant Taranaki held a slender three-point lead as the game headed into its final quarter.
Auckland were now doing most of the attacking but every foray into Taranaki’s 22 was met by a solid defensive effort from the home side.
Taranaki extended their lead thanks to a McKenzie penalty – after Auckland’s front row were pinged for illegal scrummaging – and although he missed with another shot at goal he redeemed himself with his snap-shot in the 77th minute before Anscombe added another penalty which seemed to secure his side a bonus point for losing by less than seven points.
That was not not to be as Ngatai’s late try sealed a hard-fought win for the hosts.
Tries: R Marshall, Hall, Tamanivalu, Ngatai
Cons: McKenzie 3
Pens: McKenzie 2
Drop goal: McKenzie
Pens: Anscombe 5
Taranaki: 15 James Marshall (c), 14 Codey Rei, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Berny Hall, 6 Iopu Iopu-Aso, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Riki Hoeata, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Replacements: 16 Sione Lea, 17 Ryan Cocker, 18 Leighton Price, 19 Mitchell Crosswell, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Jackson Ormond, 22 Beaudein Waaka.
Auckland: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Hadleigh Parkes, 12 TJ Faiane, 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 Su’a, 17 Nick Barrett 18 Jack Whetton, 19 Nepia Fox-Matamua, 20 Leon Fukofuka (Marist) 21 Melani Nanai, 22 Simon Hickey.
Referee: Glen Jackson