Luck deserts Makos despite gutsy display
The Tasman Makos have suffered another frustrating second-half nose-dive to lose 20-19 against a desperate Waikato team last night in Hamilton.
It was Tasman's third straight NPC rugby defeat and the second time in as many games that they have relinquished a halftime lead.
Unlike their previous loss to Otago though, Tasman still had a chance late in last night's Waikato Stadium clash to steal a win. But a crucial turnover in the dying moments, with Tasman pressing hard inside Waikato's quarter, enabled the home team to scramble out of danger.
The win helped ease some of the pressure on a struggling Waikato side as it looks to avoid relegation from the premiership, with Tasman still a chance at a home championship semifinal with three games remaining.
Tasman were forced to play too much rugby inside their own half as Waikato enjoyed a clear territorial edge throughout the match. But a tight and aggressive Tasman defence meant no rewards for Waikato's early attacking efforts. Tasman's forwards were also well up for the contest with an effective scrum applying early pressure on Waikato's pack.
Tasman coach Kieran Keane, who had previously expressed some embarrassment over the manner of Tasman's second-half capitulation against Otago, was satisfied with what he considered to be a marked improvement in some key areas.
In fact, he said that had it not been for a couple of borderline decisions, or non-calls, by the match officials, Tasman might well have secured the win.
"We were a bit stiff to lose that," Keane said.
"I think in the second half we were denied most of the possession, [but] we showed some real character on defence and worked really hard when we had hardly any ball.
"We held them out and held them out, and they got a bit of a dubious try [to centre Save Tokula] with what looked like a forward pass to me. And then we missed out on a lineout drive when a guy came round and stole the ball - and got away with it. We didn't get the call."
Waikato No 10 Piers Francis and Tasman fullback Tom Marshall traded early penalties to be six-all after 25 minutes, Marshall landing his third straight attempt five minutes later to give Tasman their first lead at 9-6.
Waikato eventually breached Tasman's defence after 38 minutes when flanker Zak Hohneck received an inpass from Francis near halfway, wing Declan O'Donnell breaking well into Tasman's quarter before halfback Brendon Leonard received the final pass for an excellent try.
But Waikato's lead was shortlived, Tasman wing Peter Betham producing a trademark 40-metre solo run right on halftime to score beside the posts as Tasman took a 16-13 lead into the break.
A Marshall penalty two minutes after the restart extended Tasman's lead to six points. But it did not last long, Tokula again breaching the defensive line out wide off a contentious pass before receiving the return inpass from his wing Tim Mikkelson to score. Francis' angled conversion restored Waikato's lead at 20-19, which they held to the end in the face of some often desperate Tasman attack.
"I think there was a hell of an improvement at the breakdown and in the set piece against a pretty formidable forward pack," Keane said.
"We lost a little bit of shape late in the game and started to fall back into old habits of honey-potting around the ruck, so we started to get a little bit rattled near the end.
"But character-wise, and [in terms of] guts and determination, it was pretty good. With an ounce of luck, we'd have pulled that one off."
Tasman's forwards competed effectively at the set phases with Sam Prattley making a seamless return to tighthead prop in place of an injured Campbell Johnstone. No 8 Jordan Taufua added his characteristic punch on attack and flanker Shane Christie produced his typically high work rate on and off the ball.
Betham's attacking impetus was again evident on the wing, although Tasman's backs also struggled to breach Waikato's equally desperate defence.
Trailing at the break, Waikato's coaching staff made a significant halftime change by bringing Tawera Kerr-Barlow into halfback in place of Leonard.
Acting essentially like a fourth loose forward, Kerr-Barlow's effectiveness at the breakdowns and around the fringes increased the pressure on Tasman's defence, with the strong-running Mikkelson also cutting some late holes in a previously tight defensive screen.
Waikato skipper and No 8 Alex Bradley said his players had received some direct instructions during the halftime break, "that we just needed to keep to our structure basically, keep the ball in hand, work hard in the forwards and the backs make smart decisions".
For Tasman captain Andrew Goodman though, the familiar strain of disappointment was again evident.
"We just probably played a bit too much rugby in our own half in the second half maybe, a bit of [ill] discipline and a couple of missed tackles at the start put us under pressure."
Tasman's next match is a crucial home championship clash with Bay of Plenty at Trafalgar Park next Thursday.
Waikato 20 (Brendon Leonard, Save Tokula tries, Piers Francis 2 pens, 2 cons) Tasman 19 (Peter Betham try, Tom Marshall 4 pens, con) Ht 13-16.
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