It took until the second half for them to establish some dominance, but Waikato eventually ran away with their national provincial premiership opener 42-22 against Harbour at Albany today.
It was six tries to three in the end against championship division Harbour, but Waikato had to work hard to get the upper hand, only leading 11-7 at halftime and giving up their advantage early in the second spell before the forwards began to rule the breakdowns and halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow started running with ball in hand.
Waikato certainly didn't have things their own way in the first spell with North Harbour scoring the first try through elusive winger Nafi Tuitavake in the eighth minute and also monopolising possession.
The visitors had the aid of a stiff north-easterly breeze and did fight back to take the lead in the 17th minute through some great buildup work from both backs and forwards to lay on an overlap try in the left corner to winger Tim Mikkelson.
That put Waikato ahead 8-7 and they kept that advantage for the rest of the half but had to defend stoutly with Harbour having 64 per cent territory despite playing into the wind and 57 per cent possession.
Fullback Trent Renata missed the try conversion but kicked a 22nd minute penalty goal to give Waikato their 11-7 halftime advantage, but the home side certainly had their chances with a Ben Afeaki pass to a glaring overlap down the right touchline going astray and Cory Aporo only just bundled out in the left corner, while Michael Hobbs missed a 32m penalty.
It took just seven minutes of the second spell for Harbour to snatch the lead back off Waikato, their powerful midfield back combination of Francis Saili and Aporo again cutting loose and lock Chris Smith feeding hooker James Parsons one off a ruck in the left corner to score Harbour's second try.
But Waikato struck back quickly with two tries in less than two minutes, centre Save Tokula getting them over the advantage line and then second-five Jackson Willison making a half break and finding trailing prop Toby Smith with the one-handed offload for the first one.
But the next one was the try of the match, Kerr-Barlow suddenly sparking into life after a relatively quiet first spell and combining brilliantly with under-utilised right winger Declan O'Donnell down the left flank to sweep 50m and put Kerr-Barlow over.
Renata converted both tries to give Waikato a 25-12 lead and some breathing space at last.
Harbour fullback Luke Devcich reduced the deficit to 10 with a penalty goal soon after but it was too little to make an impact with Waikato immediately sweeping back down field, initiated by Kerr-Barlow, Matt Vant Leven charged over the advantage line and the big forwards did the job out wide in keeping the ball alive for skipper Alex Bradley to score the bonus point try in the right corner.
Waikato rang the changes off the bench and one of them, centre Glen Robertson on debut, made the next stunning break, O'Donnell carried it on and replacement halfback Brendon Leonard was in support to score the fifth try for his side. Renata converted to make it 37-15 and put the visitors well in control.
Harbour also got impact from their bench and with five minutes to go replacement halfback Brenton Helleur got over for a try converted by Codey Rei.
But again it was a case of tit-for-tat with Waikato replacement hooker Kalem Chan Boon the beneficiary of an overlap as Waikato attacked with width to score his first try for the province, Renata's conversion hitting an upright.
Scorers: Waikato 42 (Tim Mikkelson, Toby Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Alex Bradley, Brendon Leonard, Kalem Chan Boon tries; Trent Renata 3 conversions, 2 penalty goals) North Harbour 22 (Nafi Tuitavake, James Parsons, Brenton Helleur tries; Michael Hobbs, Codey Rei conversions; Luke Devcich penalty goal). Halftime 11-7 Waikato.
- © Fairfax NZ News