Counties Manukau have once again successfully defended the Ranfurly Shield, holding off a still challenge from Waikato to win 37-25 in a thrilling ITM Cup clash in Pukekohe on Saturday.
The bonus point win sees the Steelers establish a nine-point buffer over Waikato for fourth spot in the ITM Cup Premiership, though Waikato have a match in hand. Relegation - Counties' primary concern at the start of their first season in the Premiership - seems unlikely now.
Tana Umaga's side outscored their visitors four tries to three in a pulsating encounter. Counties led 20-11 at the interval and extended the lead after the break, only to see Waikato fight back bravely to within in five points midway through the second period.
The game was not without a tinge of controversy as the TMO was called upon to check the grounding of Steelers wing Toni Pulu's 58th try, which proved the killer blow to the Mooloo Men's challenge
The win also means Counties now have to see off just one more challenge to retain the Shield for the season, when they host Southland on October 11.
For Counties Manukau :
Tries: Stowers, A. Pulu, Lee, T. Pulu
Cons: Kerr 4
Pens: Kerr 3
Yellow card: A. Pulu
Tries: Renata, Grice, Christie
Cons: Renata 2
Pens: Renata 2
Yellow card: Alo-Emile
Counties: 15 Sherwin Stowers, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Toni Pulu, 10 Baden Kerr, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Fritz Lee (capt), 7 Maama Vaipulu, 6 Adam Cathcart, 5 Jimmy Tupou, 4 Ronald Raaymakers, 3 Jarrod Firth, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Sam Aiono.
Replacements: 16 Suliasi Taufalele, 17 Matt Talaese, 18 Sikeli Nabou, 19 Sean Reidy, 20 Kane Hancy, 21 Ahsee Tuala, 22 Sam Vaka.
Waikato: 15 Trent Renata, 14 Tim Mikkelson, 13 Save Tokula, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Dylan Collier, 10 Sam Christie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Adam Burn, 7 Jono Armstrong, 6 Rory Grice, 5 Sam Kilgour, 4 Nick Ross, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Vance Elliott, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Sean Hohneck, 19 Zak Hohneck, 20 Mick Snowden, 21 Wharenui Hawera, 22 Semisi Masirewa.
Venue: ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Referee: Chris Pollock