38 v 23
They led for 67 minutes but a weakened Counties Manukau could not complete a major upset, eventually falling 38-23 to Canterbury in Christchurch on Sunday.
Although the scoreboard suggested a comfortable bonus point win, which all but secured a home semi-final for the Cantabrians, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Missing 12 starters – including Hika Elliot, Frank Halai, Baden Kerr and Sherwin Stowers – Tana Umaga’s side hardly struck fear into the hearts of the AMI Stadium faithful, but after they stormed to a 23-9 lead, Canterbury’s 15-year dominance over the men from Pukekohe was under threat.
That’s when the red-and-black machine kicked into gear and piled on 27 unanswered points – through tries to Patrick Osborne, Nasi Manu and Luke Whitelock (2).
The late surge saved Scott Robertson’s blushes, after his side struggled with decision-making and a lack of energy that saw the visitors take a 13-9 lead at the break. Poor execution at set-piece and ball security also proved costly as the Steelers pounced through second-five Tyrone Lefau and Sean Reidy.
The latter was enthusiastic and was a constant presence at the breakdown. Usually a fixture on the bench, he stated his case for more game time by finishing off a sweeping passing play in the left corner to put the visitors ahead by 16 points.
But in true Canterbury fashion, they fought back with two quick-fire tries to Patrick Osborne and Nasi Manu, who was brought on as a replacement after the break.
Back to within two points, Tyler Bleyendaal (16 points) stepped up to slot his fourth penalty of the afternoon to snatch a slender 24-23 lead.
By then the Steelers were struggling to keep up as Whitelock strolled across for brace in the final 10 minutes.
With a semi-final berth already in the bag, Counties Manukau will regroup for next week’s Ranfurly Shield defence against Southland.
Canterbury: 38 (Patrick Osborne, Nasi Manu, 2 Luke Whitelock tries; Tyler Bleyendaal 2 con, 4pen; Richie Mo’unga 2 con)
Counties Manukau: 23 (Tyrone Lefau, Sean Reidy tries; Ki Anufe 2 con, 3 pen)