Fins up Marlborough, the Mako are heading back to Blenheim.
In Nelson on Friday they overcame Auckland 40-0, booking a home semifinal which will be played in Blenheim, probably on October 19.
Both Wellington and Manawatu came to Lansdowne Park earlier in the season, attracting decent crowds, but the Mitre 10 Cup semifinal is likely to far exceed those numbers with excitement growing as the Mako cut an unbeaten swathe through the premiership ranks.
After a couple of patchy efforts, revitalised defence, coupled with some innovative attack, has put a decent breeze back in Tasman’s sails.
On Friday they made the Auckland As look positively B grade, putting 40 unanswered points on the defending champions.
After struggling over the past fortnight to recapture the attacking rhythm and defensive energy they brought to their first five games it was refreshing to see a resurgence in both areas, but particularly without the ball in hand.
The in-your-face, energised defensive attitude that set the likes of Canterbury, Wellington, Taranaki and Counties Manukau on their heels was back last night … with a vengeance.
Although the Mako made a flying start, 14 points up after nine minutes, it was the following 18 minutes that set the template for the match. For all that time Auckland hammered at the Tasman line, attacking close to the breakdown and out wide, but the Mako resisted. A reduction to 14 men following persistent infringements merely prompted a further defensive boost.
Mako assistant coach, and the man charged with planning their defence, Shane Christie, said his side were well aware they would need to lift their game against a dangerous Auckland outfit.
“We put a big emphasis on getting some areas back that we may have lost the last couple of weeks … when we get pushed we can really turn it up, like we did tonight,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to next week already and how much more we can improve from this performance. That’s the aim, bigger and better performances every week.”
Although the Mako are assured of a home semifinal to be played in Blenheim, likely on Saturday October 19, Christie suggests it will be business as usual prior to that.
“[The home semi] is a massive advantage but it is not at the front of our minds just now … we have two weeks of round robin games left to try and improve our game before then.”
It also appears likely the rotational policy that the Mako selection team have used to this stage will continue, with all the squad vying for a place in the starting XV.
Last night the arrival of the bench players, slightly earlier in the piece due to the heavy defensive load carried by the starting XV in the first half, coincided with another elevation in intensity.
“Our Sparkies [reserves] are exceptional players … I don’t know what our best team is, but I do know that whatever squad of 23 that we put out will be ready to perform.”
Allied to the side’s defensive heroics was some innovation on attack, highlighted by Mitch Hunt’s dummied touch kick which led directly to the Mako’s fifth try and a cleverly-orchestrated back move that allowed Leicester Fainga’anuku, who along with Sione Havili were my players of the match, to score their third.
If the challenge of taking on the defending champs wasn’t motivation enough for the Mako, they had the added incentive of giving skipper David Havili a night to remember as he ran out for the 50th time.
Christie was chuffed that they were able to produce the goods on cue.
“The boys will be stoked that they could do that for him … it was a good performance and he deserves it as the skipper and a local lad. The team were really motivated during the week, we knew it was his 50th and you could see with how they played how much respect they have for him.”
The man himself couldn’t wipe the smile off his face after the game and admitted he was a little emotional in the lead-up.
“It has taken a long time to get there so I’m really stoked to be able to bring [the 50th game] up in my home province,” said Havili.
Although the Mako weren’t able to notch 50 points to mark the occasion, they came close, their leader saying they were due for a big one.
“We have lacked some urgency over the last couple of weeks … we talked about making a fast start, and we did that. There were a couple of discipline areas we need to clean up but all-in-all it was a pretty good night,” he added.
Next on the Mako menu is Northland, who come to Nelson on Sunday, with a 2.05pm kickoff.