Counties Manukau too strong for Swamp Foxes
ECOLight Stadium may have resembled a swamp by the end of Counties Manukau's first Ranfurly Shield challenge of the year against Thames Valley but it was the Steelers, not the Swamp Foxes, who were celebrating a 68-0 victory at fulltime.
It was a spirited challenge by the visitors which ensured there were a few nervous moments for the solid crowd, who braved the wet conditions, early on.
Five debuants in the Steelers' starting side, coupled with the wet conditions, resulted in a messy opening to the match.
Thames Valley's all-time leading points-scorer David Harrison had chance to give his side the early lead when Steelers prop Sean Bagshaw failed to roll away in a ruck but he pushed his penalty attempt wide of the uprights.
Halfback Kane Hancy capitalised from a scrum inside the 22m line soon after, gliding through the defence for the opening try.
Sloppy handling plagued both sides but the Steelers received a constant stream of possession thanks to their dominant set piece.
In a sign of respect to the Swamp Foxes' defence, the Steelers opted to kick a penalty through Jared Page after 20 minutes but less than a minute later the fullback was back on the score sheet with a try after a break down the left wing.
As halftime approached, the floodgates opened.
Swamp Foxes' halfback Mike Smith dropped a ball from a lineout inside his own 22m line and Ronald Raaymakers set up No 8 Mamaa Vaipulu for a try.
Toni Pulu then danced his way through some matador-like defence for a scintillating solo try which was followed by Page dotting down for his second.
Vaipulu opened the second half by scoring his second try under the posts from a nicely timed run off the right shoulder of Hancy.
It got worse for the visitors when veteran halfback Aaron MacDonald was yellow carded and the Steelers awarded a penalty try when he roamed offside at a 5m scrum to stop them scoring a rare push-over try.
While he was in the sin bin, replacement centre Karl Ropati strolled in for an easy try to bring up the Counties Manukau's half century.
Page capped off his man-of-the-match performance with his third try on fulltime.
It was the most points the Steelers have scored in a Ranfurly Shield match, eclipsing the 44 they scored against Taranaki last year.
It was the Steelers' fourth successful shield defence since they wrestled the Log o' Wood off Hawke's Bay in September last year.
They will put it on the line again next Wednesday against Mid Canterbury in Pukekohe.
Counties Manukau 68 (Jared Page 3, Mamaa Vaipulu 2, Kane Hancy, Toni Pulu, Karl Ropati, Luke Graham, penalty tries; Page 6 con; Page 2 pen) Thames Valley 0. HT: 35-0