A combination of attacking brilliance and set piece dominance saw the Tasman Mako create their own slice of history in Napier on Saturday.
The Mako downed Hawke’s Bay 47-28 to clinch an unbeaten run through Mitre 10 Cup round robin play, a first for the fledgling union and the first time that has been achieved by any NPC side since Auckland did so in 2007.
Historical significance aside, the Magpies’ match also provided Tasman with an ideal dress rehearsal for this week’s Mitre 10 Cup premiership semifinal at Lansdowne Park.
The match was evenly poised at the break, Tasman ahead 19-14, but the first 20 minutes after halftime produced four Mako tries and quickly took the game out of the home side’s reach.
Within two minutes of oranges Leicester Fainga’anuku scored his second try as the forwards and back combined to produce some irresistible attack. Ten minutes later Mitch Hunt was over, again the result of some sparking team work, then Alex Nankivell, arguably man of the match for Tasman, produced some individual brilliance to bag their sixth. Hooker Hugh Roach added the Mako’s final try in the 60th minute, underlining the impact of the “Sparkies” off the bench.
The home side picked up a couple of late tries to earn a bonus point, but the match was well and truly decided by then, underlying the difference in class between a top premiership side and a top championship outfit.
The first half was a see-sawing affair, with five tries scored.
The home side struck first, after just five minutes, when Marino Mikaele Tu’u scored, Tiaan Falcon’s conversion giving the Magpies an early 7-0 lead.
However the Mako bounced back quickly, No 8 Sione Havili benefitting from some determined work by Nankivell to bag the visitor’s first five-pointer. Hunt’s conversion levelled the scores.
The Magpies again claimed the lead midway through the half, No 8 Devan Flanders breaking a tackle from a five-metre scrum to score, with Falcon adding his second conversion.
Again Tasman drew level, this time through a try to winger Leicester Fainga’anuku from a well-worked lineout move after their scrum had given them dominance, along with a yellow card to Hawke’s Bay lock Geoff Cridge for a high tackle.
From then it was all Tasman, utilising the one-man advantage to produce quality set pieces and threaten the home side’s line.
However, it took until referee’s time in the first spell for them to bag their third, scored by Tima Fainga’anuku who dotted down in the corner from a Hunt cross kick after the forwards found the Magpies’ defence too hard to penetrate close to the posts.
Mako co-head coach Andrew Goodman was particularly impressed with his side’s efforts either side of the halftime break. “That middle patch won us the game. We played some really good rugby then, right up there.
“We probably started a bit slowly again … a few errors and penalties built up against us to put us under pressure, and we got a bit loose at the end.
“But the boys certainly got what they needed out of the game.
“It was a great challenge … our defence got tested and there are some things we need to work on there, plus some of our work with the ball in hand.”
Another pleasing factor was the fact the side appeared to come through with no serious injuries, making the selectors’ job to pick a semi-final side that much harder.
“It’s good isn’t it?” said Goodman. “Better that way than the other way. We have already started debating [selections] as a coaching group so there will be some tough calls to make.
“The great thing about this squad is that fact they are all really supportive of each other.
“They were really excited today because they knew they had a chance to make a bit of history. It was nice to tick that off.”
Scores: Tasman 47 (Sione Havili, Leicester Fainga’anuku 2, Tima Fainga’anuku, Alex Nankivell, Hugh Roach, Mitch Hunt tries, Hunt 4 con, David Havili 2 con) Hawke’s Bay 28 (Marino Mikaele Tu’u, Devan Flanders, Jason Long, Caleb Makene tries, Tiaan Falcon 4 con). HT 19-14 Mako