Stoic Otago overcome flashy Counties Manukau
All Black utility Ben Smith scored the 80-metre match-winning try against Counties Manukau tonight to keep Otago in the hunt for the Championship final.
In a battle of contrasting styles, enthusiastic and entertaining Counties blew countless chances and may look back on the 30-14 defeat as a pivotal blow to their aspirations.
Both these sides were contenders for promotion at the end of the season, but Otago, based on a conservative game-plan and scrabbling defence, gave the visitors a lesson in how crucial it is you nail limited opportunities.
Smith was released from All Blacks duties after his cameo off the bench against Fiji. His impact was blunted by Otago's lack of attack, but he burst onto a Buxton Popoali'i pass to run 80-metres and seal his side's third win, 10-minutes from full-time.
Otago started this season with two notable wins over North Harbour and Auckland, but needed to right the ship after two disappointing losses to Hawke's Bay and Northland.
They made 10 changes for this match, the most notable omission was inspirational South African skipper Eben Joubert, who is gone for the season with a knee injury. Fringe All Black lock Tom Donnelly started the game as captain and when he was replaced in the second-half veteran prop Kees Meeuws stepped up.
Counties, who changed seven of their forward pack, stayed in the deep south after their gallant Ranfurly Shield loss to Southland, which ended a two-match winning run. It was obvious from their vigorous start and opening try to blindside flanker Adam Cathcart they were keen to put that disappointment behind them, but instead fell to back-to-back defeats.
And it was an unlikely source that sparked Otago into life.
Donnelly, not noted for his roaming skills, showed vision to instigate a surprising blindside counter attack from halfway that finished with a try to halfback Johnny Legg.
Those points settled Otago. They cashed in on their core work through six sweetly struck Glenn Dickson penalties and managed to cling to a 16-8 half-time buffer.
Counties, however, always looked the more dangerous. Their distinctive wide-ranging attacking style continuously threatened.
The visitors' speedy backs often broke down the flanks and it seemed a matter of when, not if, they would break Otago's stoic defence, but repeated errors and a shaky scrum fluffed numerous scoring opportunities.
Otago had few chances but every one of them they took. Popoali'i epitomised that as he swooped on a Counties' fumble and off-loaded to a charging Smith, who sprinted away for the match-winner.
Otago (Johnny Legg, Ben Smith tries Glenn Dickson con, pen 6) Counties Manukau (Adam Cathcart try Baden Kerr pen 3)