Otago win semifinal thriller over Tasman
Otago have taken the first step towards a return to New Zealand provincial rugby's top echelon with an exciting 41-34 ITM Cup championship semifinal win over the Tasman Makos.
Otago's win at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium means they'll now meet the winner of the second semifinal between Counties Manukau and Southland for the right to play in next season's premiership.
It was a disappointing conclusion to a controversial week for the Tasman side after the loss of their Canterbury loan player and No 8 Jordan Taufua. And with injuries to several key players adding to Tasman's plight, their spirited efforts weren't enough to overcome a stronger finishing Otago side.
Otago had Tasman on the back foot after just five minutes when lock Jackson Hemopo barged across on debut after an attacking 5m scrum to give the home team an early 7-0 lead.
Two Andrew Goodman penalties, the second from 52m, soon had Tasman back in touch at 7-6, before Glenn Dickson again extended the margin to 10-6 with his first penalty success.
Tasman then stunned the locals after 19 minutes when a superb counterattack by fullback Albert Nikoro from near his own quarter saw Tasman attack to within metres of Otago's line. No 10 Hayden Cripps took advantage of quick ball to place an angled kick into Otago's dead ball area where he found Goodman waiting to score Tasman's opening try and their first lead at 13-10.
With Goodman in the blood bin, Nikoro stepped up with a 29th minute penalty to extend Tasman's lead to 16-10. And with Tasman applying constant pressure, a scrambling Otago side conceded another penalty as Nikoro put Tasman further ahead at 19-10.
Otago's returning All Blacks flanker Adam Thomson stalled Tasman's momentum when he finished in the corner after some enterprising counterattack, Thomson receiving the final pass from No 8 Gareth Evans to reduce Tasman's lead to 19-15 at the break.
Tasman struck quickly after the restart when elusive winger Peter Betham defused a threatening Otago attack with a crucial intercept that saw him finish 80m away with Tasman's second try, Goodman's sideline conversion putting them further ahead at 26-15.
With Otago increasing their intensity, a second Dickson penalty cut the margin to 26-18.
Then, with Tasman reduced to 14 men after lock Filipo Levi collapsed a maul near his own line, Tasman again struck against the run of play when an 80m Nikoro intercept helped push the visitors to a 31-18 lead.
A sniping run by halfback Fumiaki Tanaka from an attacking lineout gave Otago their third try and a 31-25 deficit, reduced further with a Dickson penalty to 31-26 as Otago continued to apply the pressure.
The mounting pressure continued to take its toll when fullback Tony Ensor capped another withering attack with Otago's fourth try as the home team regained the lead at 35-31.
Goodman reduced it to a one-point ball game with nine minutes to go with his third penalty success. But Dickson earned his team some breathing space at 38-34 when he bounced a kick off the left had upright with six minutes remaining.
A final scrum penalty in the dying moments gave Dickson one final chance to seal Otago's win and end a dramatic contest.
Otago 41 (Jackson Hemopo, Adam Thomson, Fumiaki Tanaka, Tony Ensor tries, Glenn Dickson 5 pens, 3 cons) Tasman 34 (Andrew Goodman, Peter Betham, Albert Nikoro tries, Goodman 3 pens, 2 cons, Nikoro 2 pens) Ht 15-19.
- © Fairfax NZ News