Waikato will face Canterbury in the ITM Cup Final after snatching victory in injury time to beat Auckland 38-37 at Eden Park.
Waikato will face Canterbury in the ITM Cup Final after snatching victory in injury time to beat Auckland 38-37 at Eden Park on Saturday.
Auckland hearts were broken as Waikato replacement hooker Hikairo Forbes powered over from close range, which then allowed pivot Trent Renata to kick the match-winning conversion that takes his team to Christchurch next Friday.
It was a sad case of close but no cigar for the home side who seemed destined for victory with four minutes left on the clock, until the Mooloo Men played out the rest of the match on Auckland's tryline.
The hosts defended bravely with the quarter-filled Eden Park crowd cheering with every try-saving tackle made by their team, but the pressure finally told as Forbes provided the killer blow.
Despite an early penalty to Waikato, Auckland dominated the opening exchanges as they smashed into their opponents with vigour.
A good up-and-under by wing Chay Raui piled the pressure onto the visitors as Dave Thomas raced up in defence to create a turnover.
Catching the Waikato line backpedaling, Auckland pivot Gareth Anscombe fired a pass out wide to Benson Stanley who managed to beat three defenders on the way to the line to score after seven minutes.
Anscombe, who has raised more than a few eyebrows over the last few weeks with his distinguished performances, looked to have scored for Auckland soon after as he found Waikato asleep at the back and chipped over the top, but he was just beaten to the ball by Sosene Anesi who denied the youngster a certain five-pointer.
Anscombe and Renata both traded penalties before Anesi hit back for the Mooloos.
It was Sevens star Save Tokula who created the opportunity, getting on the outside of Ben Atiga before being brought down metres short of the line by Benson Stanley.
But Anesi was there in support, picking up the ball and darting to the line as Waikato edged ahead 11-10 after 32 minutes.
Auckland's reply was swift and immediate as Toby Morland hit back with a try minutes later, bustling lock Liaki Moli racing down the sideline before passing back inside to the nuggety scrum-half who scampered over the line.
But tries to Waikato flank Dominiko Waqaniburotu and lock Romana Graham either side of half-time had the Mooloos back in control.
And when winger Henry Speight finished off a well worked move to barge over 14 minutes into the second half, it seemed Auckland were on the ropes and on the verge of succumbing to their opponents.
But the home side never seemed flustered and continued to fight their way back into the match
Ben Atiga managed to produce a brilliant turnover and get Auckland deep inside enemy territory, and as Charlie Faumuina carried the ball forward, replacement number nine Auvasa Faleali'i threw a dummy pass from the back of the ruck and darted through a hole to score.
Anscombe nailed a superb penalty kick 45 metres out near the sideline to give Auckland the lead for the first time in the second half before Raui scored 12 minutes from full-time to blow the score out to 37-28 .
It was an extremely fortuitous bounce which led to the try, as Benson Stanley kicked ahead from deep inside his half only for it to be deflected by a Waikato player.
As the ball ricocheted off the defender, full-back Brent Ward was on hand to regather it and set off down the field, drawing Dwayne Sweeney before sending Raui away for the try.
Renata narrowed the gap to 37-31 with a penalty kick eight minutes from full-time before Waikato scored the decisive try two minutes after stoppage time to deny Auckland of a spot in the final.
Tries: Stanley, Morland, Faleali', Raui
Cons: Anscombe 4
Pens: Anscombe 3
Tries: Anesi, Waqaniburotu, Graham, Speight, Forbes
Cons: Renata 2
Pens: Renata 3
Auckland: 15 Brent Ward, 14 Dave Thomas, 13 Ben Atiga, 12 Benson Stanley (c), 11 Chay Raui, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Toby Morland, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Sean Polwart, 6 Onosa'i Auva'a, 5 Liaki Moli, 4 Kurtis Haiu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tevita Mailau.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Steven Luatua, 19 Chris Lowrey, 20 Auvasa Faleali'i, 21 Matt Berquist, 22 Winston Stanley.
Waikato: 15 Sosene Anesi, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Save Tokula, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Dwayne Sweeney, 10 Trent Renata, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Alex Bradley, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5 Romana Graham, 4 Toby Lynn, 3 Nathan White (c), 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Hikairo Forbes, 17 Ben May, 18 Kent Fife, 19 Zak Hohneck, 20 Malcolm Barnes, 21 Christian Lealiifano, 22 Henry Speight/ Tim Mikkelson.
Referee: Chris Pollock