Southland's 'freak' to rescue again
Marty McKenzie comes from Southland rugby royalty and he was being feted like a king after helping the Stags to their second from-the-ashes win this week.
Southland's 34-31 win over North Harbour at Rugby Park last night followed on from Wednesday night's outrageous 33-25 victory over Bay of Plenty, a game where the Stags scored the final 20 points of the match, including a late try to McKenzie.
Against Harbour yesterday, the Stags had to come back from 13-0 down early in the game, after trailing 16-5 at halftime and 31-24 late in the piece.
They scored four second half tries against a hapless Harbour, with the tiebreaker coming from McKenzie's 79th minute drop goal.
Stags coach David Henderson could only shake his head in wonder at the precocious talent of the former Christ's College star, who also laid on a first half try to Cardiff Vaega with an impossible pass behind the back of the defence.
"He would be one of the first to admit that he can be a freak at times in regards to doing something really well and then turning around and something not so good. He's taken his chance and he's put his hand up."
McKenzie is at his best when he's playing on instinct.
His first try came when he took the ball to the line and players held off the tackle. His second came when he arrived at the ruck and, as the ball squirted out, he spotted there was no-one on the blindside.
The winning drop goal was another classic example.
"It surprised me when I got the ball, to be fair, but I think it worked out well because it surprised everyone, so I didn't get a lot of pressure on me and I managed to squeeze it inside the upright. Me and Tayler [Adams] just went with instinct. I was standing in a bit of no-mans land, just waiting for the boys to bring the ball back towards the posts and it just came out at the right time."
Henderson was proud of the way his team recovered from a flat first half performance where they were dominated in most facets.
"Just in that first half, you could see we were tired and weren't getting into the game, nothing was going right for us. We were giving away too many penalties, although I thought we were better in that area."
In fact, the Stags were even worse than that.
They were hammered by the referee at scrumtime and a normally efficient lineout showed worrying cracks that assistant coach Hoani Macdonald was already investigating last night.
However, they showed no shortage of character to recover midway through the second half when their hard-won 24-21 lead was turned into a seven-point deficit, thanks mainly to a 70m intercept try by Harbour centre Pita Ahki.
It had been 369 days since Southland's last bonus point try, and more than three years since the Stags last scored more than four tries in a championship game.
Harbour coach Liam Barry, no stranger to Rugby Park heartbreak, including the 2011 shield challenge, was disappointed with the way his team fell apart in the second spell.
"We'd taken our opportunities in the first half and [then] we looked like we'd had three games in 10 days," he said.
"We just lacked urgency, we didn't follow on from the first half. We didn't respect possession or get gainline."
The Stags targeted improved fitness during the offseason and it showed last night.
Coming off three games in 10 days, including a week in the North Island, it would have been easy to fold when trailing by a converted try with quarter of an hour to go.
The ability of players like Josh Bekhuis to get back on defence, and then force a vital ruck penalty in the dying minutes was crucial.
The win maintains Southland's place in the championship top four and sets up an engaging clash against Otago in Dunedin on Saturday.
"We've made another step forward, but it will be another tough game against Otago," Henderson said.
"We are building in confidence, the injuries don't look too bad, so we'll have a few days off and get back into it on Wednesday."
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