Late loss hard to stomach
No one could have blamed the gallant Manawatu Turbos had they scoured Invercargill last night searching for ropes after being burgled by Southland.
The 79th minute 17-11 loss to Southland will go down as one of the two most heart-breaking defeats in the Turbos' seven-year history.
The other was the controversial last-second 23-20 loss to Auckland at Eden Park in 2009.
But as coach Jason O'Halloran said: “That one didn't have a playoff hanging on it.”
Last night's loss in pouring rain was compounded by two huge calls by referee Kane McBride. With four minutes left and Manawatu powering up, flanker Callum Gibbins was heading goalwards in a match-defining moment when halfback Karl Bryson got in his way and a cruel obstruction was ruled.
Southland attacked from that, Mark Wells cut against the grain and fullback Marty McKenzie supposedly wriggled over in the corner. McBride took ages looking, by which time McKenzie had fully grounded the ball.
With the season hanging on the line for both teams, McBride should have gone to the video referee.
Instead, Southland might now scramble a semifinal and the best Manawatu can do is finish fifth if Northland come up barren against Counties-Manukau today.
The Turbos won in foul weather over Hawke's Bay and seemed to have this one won in rain which had pelted down since 1pm.
With the forwards so expert at mauling and driving, it suited them and shut the Stags out of the game for long periods and produced Ma'afu Fia's try 13 minutes before halftime to take a 8-7 lead.
But in the end their own mistakes, notably handling errors, kept Southland in with a sniff.
The most glaring were in set play, with Manawatu losing five lineouts in the first half alone, an area where they led the NPC last season. And the creaking scrum at times put too much pressure on the halfbacks to clear, despite Papa Wharewera's effective disruption of the enemy in the first spell.
Bryson had a death wish when he came on running across in front of his goalposts.
Maybe the Turbos didn't kick enough, only half of Southland's ration, and certainly the Turbos' chase of the box kicks wasn't frantic enough. Manawatu spent too much time behind their own lines but fortunately their defensive line was resolute and penalties were few.
Rob Foreman and Fia were full of valour even if they missed Cardiff Vaega when he scored. Also outstanding were locks Michael FitzGerald, certain to be the Turbos' player of the year as the best ball-carrying lock in the competition, and Fraser Stone, Gibbins, Nick Crosswell and James Oliver.
Lewis Marshall is a dry-weather footballer, spilling a couple of bombs, then he went and sliced Southland open, as did Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Nathan George, for a little guy, had a sterling match and the green defensive line looked impregnable, until the last cursed minute.
Stags captain and prop Jamie Mackintosh continually got away with not binding in the scrums.
The frustration was that the Stags were there for the taking, Manawatu had the darned game won and their fans will take many weeks of medication to recover from this rebuff. But no one can question that the Turbos tried their green hearts out.