The PIC Counties Manukau Steelers showed plenty of courage to defend their line and hold on for a 16-14 victory over neighbours Auckland in the opening round of the Mitre 10 Cup at ECOLight Stadium.
After trailing for much of the second half, first-five Baden Kerr landed a 49m penalty in the dying minutes to put the PIC Steelers in front 16-14 in front of a fervent 6100-strong crowd.
While the clock showed time up, there was still around three minutes remaining on the official time, as Auckland stormed on to attack and pounded away at the line.
Referee Cameron Stone ruled that Auckland Isi Tu’ungafasi was held up over the line, and blew for fulltime to give the home side an important winning start to the championship.
”The big thing to take out of it is to check the time with the referee and not go by the on-field scoreboard,” said head coach Darryl Suasua.
“The boys showed a lot of ticker. Right from the start they brought out a lot of physicality. The second half got a bit ugly and a bit unruly but we managed to hold on.
“On paper that is a strong Auckland team with some great players they went up against today but we weren’t dominated at any phase. It did lose a bit of shape in the second half but we weren’t dominated and it is something for us to build on.
“Guys like Stephen Donald and Baden Kerr brought up that line-speed in defence, an Augustine Pulu filled that inside channel, so I was really pleased with that.”
Steelers loose forward Fotu Lokotui scored the opening try from a driving maul with Kerr adding the extras.
Steelers No 8 Sam Henwood was sent to the bin after an interesting call when the referee went upstairs to the TMO for a tackle incident. Auckland made the most of the extra man and attacked with halfback Jono Hickey dotting down and converting his own try to level the scores.
Auckland missed a penalty attempt and failed to keep the ball in hand, but Kerr took the most of his opportunities and slotted a penalty from 35m out, giving the home side the lead.
Counties spent plenty of time in Auckland’s half but were not rewarded for their efforts despite looking dangerous on attack. There was no love lost between the teams with plenty of niggle even after the half time whistle had gone, with the home team ahead 10-7 at the break.
Auckland drew first blood in the second half when former Wesley College student Malakai Fekitoa crossed in the corner off a kick from Hickey who added the extras to put the visitors in front.
Auckland started to spark up but the Steelers scrum was solid, leading to a Kerr penalty to to bring the home side to within a point.
Another powerful Steelers scrum led to a further penalty chance for Kerr, but his kick went wide.
With rain adding to the challenge, and plenty of drop balls on both sides, the visitors appeared to hold the upper hand until the Steelers were awarded a penalty a metre over the halfway mark and Kerr responded splendidly for the 16-14 advantage.
The home crowd roared into the Counties chant as the Steelers held on for victory and retain the Dan Bryant Memorial Trophy for the second year in a row as well as collect four important competition points.
Next week the PIC Counties Manukau Steelers head to Hamilton to play Waikato on Friday night.
PIC Counties Manukau Steelers 16 (Fotu Lokotui try; Baden Kerr 3 pens, 1 con)
Auckland 14 (Jono Hickey, Melakai Fekitoa tries; Hickey 2 cons)
Halftime 10-7 Counties Manukau