Southland held out a determined Counties-Manukau outfit to retain the Ranfurly Shield for the second week in a row, after beating their challengers 13-9 at Rugby Park on Saturday.
It was another closely contested match in the deep south, with the Stags having to dig deep once again to pull this one out of the bag having led Counties by just four points (7-3) at half-time.
Both sides threw everything at each other, and kept the Invercargill crowd on the edge of their seats throughout this even contest.
Veteran hooker Jason Rutledge scored the only try of the match in the first half as both defences proved to be too strong.
Robbie Robinson and Baden Kerr traded shots at goal but Southland's ability to starve the South Aucklanders of possession proved the difference.
Robinson had two penalty attempts at goal within the opening quarter, but missed on both occasions. Old-hand Rutledge finally broke the dead-lock for the Stags, going over the line for his 11th try at provincial level in the 27th minute.
The try came about after the Stags mauled the ball forward from a close line-out, and it was well-deserved after plenty of pressure from the home side. Robinson's conversion followed.
Each time Southland scored, the challengers bounced back through a penalty to Kerr but his three three-pointers weren't enough. They couldn't conjure the breakout tries that have marked their wins over Otago and Wellington in the first two rounds of the competition.
The Steelers showed signs of attacking spark but their hands let them down, errors costing both sides regularly.
Robinson restored the Stags' seven-point lead two-minutes into the second half, with a well-struck drop goal. The next passage of play saw both fly-halves trade penalties as the defence of both sides made tries seem unlikely.
The boot of Robinson and Kerr were the only points that came in the second half, as Southland held out several Steelers' attacks on their line and retained the Sheld.
The outcome of this clash of previously-unbeaten teams will see Southland leapfrog Counties Manukau to go top of the table provisionally.
Southland play their next three matches on the road, so the Shield stays in Invercargill for a few more weeks at least.
Pens: Kerr 3
Southland: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Glen Horton, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Matt Saunders, 11 James Paterson, 10 James Wilson, 9 Scott Cowan; 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tim Boys, 6 John Hardie, 5 Alex Ryan, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Chris King, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie MacKintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Nic Barrett, 18 Dion Bates, 19 Elliott Dixon, 20 Sonny Rangitoheriri, 21 Mark Wells, 22 Tony Koonwaiyou.
Counties-Manukau: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams, 14 Ahsee Tuala, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Tana Umaga, 11 Sherwin Stowers, 10 Baden Kerr, 9 August Pulu; 8 Viliami Fihaki, 7 Pepa Koloamatangi, 6 Fritz Lee, 5 Jamie Chipman (c), 4 Taiasina Tuifua, 3 Jono Owen, 2 Grant Henson, 1 Simon Lemalu.
Replacements: 16 Mark Price, 17 Jeremiah Fatialofa, 18 Ronald Raaymakers, 19 Mark Selwyn, 20 Samisoni Fisilau, 21 Reynold Lee-Lo, 22 David Raikuna.
Referee: Garratt Williamson