A desperate Waikato team had to fight all the way but grabbed a much needed four competition points in the national rugby premiership tonight with a 20-19 victory over Tasman.
In front of only 3052 spectators at Waikato Stadium, with the Wel Networks Stand closed for the first time, the home team scored the winning try just 12 minutes after halftime and hung on with courageous defence and some timely form from replacement halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Tasman - third in the competitive championship division - proved a difficult opponent to tame but the home side dug deep to find the reserves to close out what could prove a crucial success in their battle to avoid relegation, lifting them above Hawke's Bay on the table.
Kerr-Barlow came on after halftime to replace Brendon Leonard, who again had played well in the first half, and added a real spark and direction that has been missing from his game to date in this ITM Cup campaign after a long Super Rugby season for the young No 9.
It took until three minutes from the break for the first try to be scored but just when Waikato thought they had grabbed a 13-9 halftime lead with a stunning counter-attack try, Tasman's Australian import on the wing Peter Betham scorched through for a solo try from 30 metres out to grab back a 16-13 advantage going into the changeover.
Before that it was something of a stalemate with Tasman fullback Tom Marshall kicking three out of three penalty goal attempts and Piers Francis getting two out of three as both teams turned the ball over too much to threaten the try line.
Waikato had plenty of ball but seemed too shapeless on attack to make inroads against the visitors' defence and were again beaten at the breakdowns in vital situations.
In the 37th minute Francis shaped to kick out of defence but spotted flanker Zak Hohneck inside him just outside their own 22 and flicked the pass that enabled the No 7 to zoom up the middle of the field.
Hohneck ran winger Declan O'Donnell into a hole in traffic and O'Donnell shook off tacklers before veering infield where he linked with halfback Brendon Leonard on the inside cut for a brilliant try that Francis converted.
But just as brilliant three minutes later was the piercing run of Betham whose speed and swerve sliced the Waikato defence open for an outstanding individual try that Marshall in turn converted for a perfect first-half kicking display.
Tasman opened their lead out to 19-13 with a Marshall penalty early in the second spell but in the 52nd minute Francis put Save Tokula into a hole with an admittedly suspect pass and Tokula combined cleverly with Tim Mikkelson to get himself a try in the right corner.
Francis converted and the home side had the lead back at 20-19 for what proved the final time in the game.
Waikato 20 (Brendon Leonard, Save Tokula tries; Piers Francis 2 conversiosn, 2 penalty goals) Tasman 19 (Peter Betham try; Tom Marshall conversion, 3 penalty goals). Halftime
- Fairfax Media
What did you make of this year's ITM Cup?