Otago's quest for promotion began soundly today as their superior composure and attacking spark ground down North Harbour 28-14 in Dunedin.
In what was an advertisement for afternoon rugby between two second-tier Championship teams, Otago couldn't have asked for much more from a season-opener.
One further try would have given them a valuable bonus point but that near miss wasn't through a lack of endeavour.
The southerners scored three-tries-to-two but went close on three other occasions and were on top throughout the contest. They will now look forward to next week's Ranfurly Shield challenge in Pukekohe.
As they set out to change perceptions and finally turn the corner after a horror recent run, Harbour will be desperately disappointed not to claim a bonus point.
A review of their kicking tactics is needed while protection and presentation of possession must also switfly improve.
Tony Brown would have been smiling in the coaching box after his men perfectly executed a backline set move to set the tone early.
Wing Fa'asiu Fuatai was the beneficiary for the first of his brace but the intricate switch opened up far too much space through the Harbour forward pack. The soft defending would not have impressed coach Steve Jackson.
Otago's grunt men must take credit for their 20-14 half-time lead.
Trent Renata was solid at fullback, Highlanders lock Tom Franklin proved a powerhouse at the lineout and on defence but debut openside flanker James Lentjes was the standout - pilfering turnovers and being a constant threat at the breakdown.
His presence caused havoc for Harbour captain Bryn Hall, who struggled to clear the slow, scrappy ball at times.
That Lentjes delivered the killer blow - his first NPC try - with 10 minutes remaining was just reward for his relentless work-ethic.Otago's counter rucking aggression and the lack of quality front-foot ball for Harbour meant their backline had few chances to shine.
Harbour's skill set wasn't as poor as previous campaigns, but they couldn't retain possession long enough to build consistent pressure.
While their set-piece was near faultless - with James Parsons and Hayden Triggs connecting particularly well at the lineout - they were let down by some aimless kicking.
Too many times first five-eighth Daniel Halangahu was guilty of hoofing the ball down field with no real hope of it being contested or retrieved. This became a frustratingly repetitive theme.
Harbour needed a spark - and Tevita Li stepped up. First he pushed Lentjes out in the corner to save a certain try and then went on a typically eye-catching burst to beat three defenders on his way to the line.
The New Zealand under-20s star and Blues wing will need to be denied space this season or he will run amok.
The visitors appeared on the ropes as Otago's backline produced some slick ball movement but they struck through Parsons from a lineout drive just before the break.
But Otago regained control to hold Harbour scoreless in the second spell.
Otago 28 (Fa'asiu Fuatai 2, James Lentjes tries Hayden Parker pen 3, con) North Harbour 14 (Tevita Li, James Parsons tries, Daniel Halangahu con 2). HT: 20-14.
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