Southland send Cowan away in style
A methodical Southland have survived Northland's challenge in Invercargill to keep their play-off hopes alive.
The 16-12 win was the ideal way to send centurion Jimmy Cowan on his way to Gloucester, although it did include a Jekyll-like second half transformation from the Stags after a clinical first half.
After four straight losses, Southland has now won three games in a row and remains in contact with the leaders in the NPC's Championship.
There's a confidence that wasn't there earlier in the campaign and the execution from forwards and backs is like day and night compared with the opening rounds, while the discipline by the Stags was remarkable.
Southland's second row was a cut above, with Josh Bekhuis starting to rediscover the form of his youth, while Alex Ryan is reveling in getting consistent injury-free game time.
The Stags' forward pack was a dominant force until halftime, winning the battles at ruck, lineout and scrum time, and taking a deserved advantage in the overall.
Any concerns over the loss of Robbie Robinson were eased by the form of Marty McKenzie at fullback.
Southland went into the game with a clear plan to kick for territory and some of the weighting on McKenzie's first half kicks was close to brilliant and his positional play wasn't much worse.
Once they were in range, however, Southland were keen to use the ball and McKenzie's offload helped spark the movement which lead to Bekhuis scoring a quality try in the corner.
In comparison, Northland were still sitting back in at their Kelvin St hotel waiting for the game to start.
They dropped a slippery ball regularly and got beaten up at the breakdown so much their dangerous backline had little chance to make an impact.
Frustrated and outplayed, the Cambridge Blues found themselves on the wrong end of a lop-sided penalty count.
It was only late in the first half that Northland even challenged the Southland tryline, but they couldn't find a way over the line.
Northland started the second half with more energy as rain greeted the players onto the field and with half an hour to go Northland's Ash Moeke showed how important he is to his team when he broke tackles by Scott Eade and Cowan to score a try next to the posts.
Moeke then struck from a Rene Ranger break, kicking for Dan Caprice out wide to supply the last pass for Tone Kopelani.
In the space of five minutes, Southland's 13-point lead had been trimmed to one and their defence had turned porous as Ranger threatened to win the game by himself.
A searing Tim Cornforth break allowed Southland to get back into Northland's half and led to Eade continuing his run of excellent goal kicking for a 16-12 lead.
Northland had ample opportunities to seal the game in the final minutes, but the Stags tackling was resolute, including one memorable tackle by Cowan, who fittingly ended the game by hoofing the ball over the terrace touchline.
Southland 16 (Josh Bekhuis try; Scott Eade 3 pen, con) Northland 12 (Ash Moeke, Tone Kopelani tries; Moeke con) HT: 13-0
- © Fairfax NZ News