Upsetting frontrunners big challenge for Stags

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 15/10/2012
Mark Wells
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
POWER PLAY: Southland wing Mark Wells tries to evade the Manawatu defence during Friday’s game at Rugby Park.

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Stags coach David Henderson recognises the major challenge his team has ahead of them if they are going to upset national provincial championship division frontrunners Counties Manukau in Pukekohe on Saturday.

A dominant Steelers side gathered momentum for the second-tier semifinals with a 44-31 win over Northland in Whangarei on Saturday. Turning into a strong wind leading 20-10, Counties looked awesome running the ball into the breeze and will be confident, having beaten Southland 30-9 in the opening round.

"With 79 minutes gone, I was contemplating there not being another week but we are here," Stags coach David Henderson said of his team's last-minute win over Manawatu on Friday night that kept their chances of qualifying for the top four alive.

That left Southland needing Counties to beat Northland and knock them out of the running.

"It was pleasing to see Counties get through yesterday and we're all set to go to Pukekohe," Henderson said. "They won't be easy, particularly at home.

"I guess the pleasing thing is that Waikato and Tasman showed the rest of us how it can be done, and it's a matter of trying to follow that formula and executing."

Henderson said the key to beating the Tana Umaga-coached Steelers was to deny them the ball and to attack them.

"If you give them too much ball, then they've got big ball-runners and they'll get gain-line and throw it wide and expose you."

Flanker Alex Taylor looks unlikely for the weekend after limping out of the Manawatu game with a knee injury but wing Kade Poki and halfback Nemia Kenatale may both be available after missing much of the season.

Jamie Mackintosh's injured rib, which had him in doubt last week, improved as the buildup continued and the Stags opted to leave it until the last minute to make a decision before the Manawatu game.

His leadership proved crucial after 20 minutes when he turned down a kickable penalty and opted for a lineout, which eventually led to the Cardiff Vaega try.

"The day before the game he was ruled out but the day of the game he showed a lot of improvement and we left it until the last minute to prove he was right and he came through it, which was good," Henderson said.

North Harbour finally salvaged something from a miserable season with a stunning upset 42-10 win over the Tasman Makos in Nelson on Saturday night.

It was bottom-placed Harbour's only win of a disappointing championship campaign but, more significantly, it denied Tasman a home semifinal. Tasman now head to Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium next weekend, where they will play a rejuvenated Otago side.

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Waikato will keep the Ranfurly Shield for the summer after a convincing 28-3 win over Hawke's Bay in Hamilton.

In testing conditions, with a stiff northwesterly and then rain squalls by halftime, the home team scored three unanswered tries in front of a crowd of 8052.

The result means Hawke's Bay have been relegated to the second-tier championship division for 2013 after one year up in the premiership.

In NPC premiership games played yesterday, Wellington beat Taranaki 33-17 and Canterbury smashed Bay of Plenty 63-22.

Top qualifiers Canterbury will now host fourth-placed Taranaki in one semifinal and Wellington will host Auckland in the other.

- The Southland Times

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