Turbos push table-topping Steelers
Manawatu's Turbos not only had Tana Umaga's Counties-Manukau staring at defeat for 66 minutes last night, but they can head for the Ranfurly Shield challenge with some sort of credibility.
All right, the Turbos would have won this had they not made so many errors in the heat of battle.
They did flag in the second spell to allow the Steelers to dash in for four tries too darned easily and a 31-28 loss resulted.
The Turbos had courage enough to score a minute from time to hoover up a bonus point, but they might rue the four points for the win when it comes to the Championship semifinals.
They have nine days to recuperate and get back first-stringers like James Oliver and Grant Polson. And a place must be found at fullback or wing for clever ball player Lewis Marshall who set up Nehe Milner-Skudder for his try and got his own at the death.
Let's pray halfback Papa Wharewera (head knock) and Craig Clare (tight Achilles tendon), who slotted four goal kicks from four, will be fit to face the Taranaki foreign legion on September 29.
Only Hawke's Bay have scored more points against Counties this year and this was a Manawatu team five below strength in the first spell and with the bench cleared by the end.
The Turbos proved in the first 20 that the way to rock Counties is to rush up and belt them, the best tackling all season opening holes in the enemy backline while second-five Matenga Baker used his 94 kilograms to penetrate.
No team enjoys the cold steel, even Taranaki, and remember Manawatu's wins this season have both been away from the Boneyard.
On a cold night of 3 degrees Celsius, Counties were human when Manawatu owned the ball through phase after phase.
So much so that 19-year-old Willie Paia'aua dashed over easily for a try on debut after only six minutes.
And with the Hurricanes' Mark Hammett and Alama Ieremia watching, maybe a Super Rugby offer might be coming Jason Emery's way because every time he touches the ball the crowd hums. He even slotted a conversion when the ball was being held against the wind on the tee.
Umaga was hugely animated in his perch with his Steelers trailing 16-3 at halfway. And had the Turbos not kept gifting the ball back to them, they might have been dead and buried.
But Umaga whipped off both locks and one prop. And Manawatu promptly shelled three kickoffs, one of them left to wee Papa Wharewera to take.
Lock Reece Robinson might be in his twilight at 34 but he was fresh, firing and an expert in the air. He would have grabbed those kickoffs had he not been subbed off prematurely after 47 minutes. Fraser Stone has been so solid this year but coughed up one from which Sherwin Stowers gassed over past David Te Moana.
Whether it was fatigue when the Turbos started holding back on tackles and coughing up turnovers, the Counties cheetahs smelt clear air. And they began haring past Karl Bryson on the inside channel, then small knock-ons appeared and kicks went out on the full or went dead.
The creaking scrum was pivotal, none less than when the ball popped out via a strange channel and Counties' Bundee Aki got his second try. Let's just say the scrum was strongest when Te Moana was at tighthead prop.
Replacement Mua Sala had been running too high until he bullocked hard upfield, Nathan George put in a prefect grubber and the ball flicked through Emery to Marshall.
That was vintage Turbos attacking of 2011.
Scorers: Counties-Manukau 31 (Bundee Aki 2, Sherwin Stowers, Baden Kerr tries; Kerr pen, 4 con) Manawatu 28 (Willie Paia'aua, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Lewis Marshall, tries; Craig Clare 3 pen, con; Jason Emery con) HT 16-3.