Tasman’s uninspiring Mitre 10 Cup premiership display against Canterbury on Saturday may not prove as costly to the Mako play-off hopes as initially thought.
Going into the 29-0 defeat at Lansdowne Park, Tasman, fresh off an away win over Wellington, lay second on the premiership points table, justifiably eying a home semifinal.
At the other end of the table languished Canterbury, an unfamiliar position for the perennial pace-setters, with the threat of relegation looming large.
Teetering above the trapdoor, the Red and Blacks responded by producing the sort of performance that has underlined their previous dominance of the provincial scene.
Their emphatic 29-0 victory at Lansdowne Park on Saturday evening appeared to have assured their participation in the top echelon next year and derailed Tasman’s chances of hosting a semi this season.
However, a combination of upset results in what is quickly turning into the closest premiership battle for many seasons has seen Tasman remain in second position at the end of the round, with Canterbury still equal bottom of the table.
Now, although they face a tricky away match against Otago on Saturday, the Mako at least have their semifinal future in their own hands.
Things were not looking so positive at the final whistle on Saturday though.
Putting their patchy form this season behind them, Canterbury took their frustrations out on a Mako side who undoubtedly knew what was coming, but were unable to match the defensive intensity and clinical finishing that came their way. Their unrelenting work without the ball quickly created hesitation in the Tasman attack, forcing them to chase the game from early stages, rather than build into it.
Given the familiarity of so many of the players through Crusaders connections, it was perhaps no wonder that, at times, it appeared as if Canterbury had read Tasman’s script.
The influence of former All Blacks Luke Romano and Mitchell Drummond cannot be underestimated. Pivotal players when Tasman lost to Canterbury in the 2018 semifinal, they repeated the dose. Romano’s disruptive lineout presence, ability to slow Tasman’s ball down and general work rate proved constant thorns in the home side’s flesh. Drummond continues to haunt his former home town team, pulling all the right strings with coolness, slick passing and clever kicking options.
The impact of the opening try, to Canterbury winger Ngatungane Punivai in the third minute, should not be underestimated.
It not only gave Canterbury the belief that they have been struggling for, it also put the Mako firmly on the back foot from the outset, a situation compounded by early injury concerns.
Mako lock Quinten Strange said while Canterbury, “with their backs to the wall”, played well, some of the damage was self-inflicted.
“We were just one or two percent off tonight, in a few areas of the game we were our own worst enemy. At set piece we weren’t executing … we were throwing those 50-50s a bit much, trying to score off first phases and they had a good plan, a good strategy.
“As we know, if you don’t turn up against Canterbury they are going to punish you.”
And that they did, Saturday’s defeat ending an 11-game winning run at Lansdowne Park, with Tasman’s last defeat in Blenheim coming against Auckland in September 2015.
However, if Tasman’s supporters have discovered anything about their team over recent years, it is their ability to rebound quickly from adversity.
In the age-old cliché, they “have plenty to work on” over the coming week.
No-one could fault their intent and effort on Saturday, but there seemed to be more spring in Canterbury’s step, perhaps a result of being pushed into a corner and facing a previously-unthinkable fate.
The Mako will be looking for the same desperation when they travel to Dunedin.
As Strange suggests, “it’s such a tight competition, whoever turns up on the day is going to win.
“That’s the beauty of this competition … we have to make sure we get the right mindset heading into next weekend.”
Mitre 10 Cup premiership table with one round remaining: Auckland 34, Tasman 29, Waikato 29, Bay of Plenty 26, North Harbour 25, Canterbury 24, Wellington 24.