Counties Manukau see off Waikato challenge
Tana Umaga has the real deal on his hands and the Counties Manukau fans are loving it.
The Steelers, cheered on by roars of "Counties! Counties!" from the 12,000-strong crowd, hung on to the Ranfurly Shield for the second week running and picked up five NPC premiership points with a 37-25 victory over Waikato in Pukekohe.
Two weeks ago they had never won the Ranfurly Shield in their 58 year history as a rugby union but now they have defended it twice with stunning victories against more established unions.
Scoring four tries to three in an end-to-end thriller Counties Manukau showed they are not about to give up the coveted 'Log o' Wood' easily.
The Steelers had a stiff breeze behind them in the first half but in the end it was the dynamic running of their backs that helped them to a 20-11 halftime lead.
The Mooloos made a strong start into the wind, forcing Counties to make countless tackles and in the end bringing a try to Waikato fullback Trent Renata.
First five-eighth Sam Christie laid on an offload in the tackle of Baden Kerr to provide the try and was testing the home side's defence with his ability to take the ball to the line.
But Counties Manukau soon showed what they were capable of out wide, a breakout spoilt only by a knock-on inside the red zone and then two minutes later fullback Sherwin Stowers zoomed onto a short pass at full pace off a ruck in front of the posts and scored between them.
Kerr put his side in the lead with the conversion and then he and Renata traded penalty goals to have the Steelers ahead 10-8 midway through the opening term.
The shield holders' confidence grew and despite losing winger Frank Halai to injury they raced out to a 17-8 lead with livewire Chiefs halfback August Pulu, who is playing his last game for Counties before undergoing leg surgery, scoring in the right hand corner from an irresistible attack.
Penalties were again swapped in the last four minutes before the break to leave the home side nine points ahead.
Waikato made a strong start to the half but seven minutes into it the Counties loose forwards turned the ball over and a great kick-chase and a half-break by Kerr saw the ball popped up off the ground to No 8 Fritz Lee in space to score between the posts.
At 27-11 the lead was becoming commanding but then Waikato winger Tim Mikkelson broke out in brilliant fashion and the move swept to the right corner through centre Save Tokula, who offloaded on the inside to a Rory Grice for a try behind the posts.
Renata's conversion cut the lead to 27-18, but immediately the Mooloos made a mistake and gave away a soft penalty that Kerr turned into three points and the lead was back to 30-28.
With Mikkelson starting to cut loose Waikato showed they had some dangerous weapons out wide and when he forced a 5m scrum in the right corner a slick openside move between replacement pivot Wharenui Hawera and Sam Christie, who had moved out one place, brought a slick try to Christie.
The end-to-end action continued with just three minutes later left winger Toni Pulu scoring in the corner from a long pass, to claim the four-try bonus point, and Kerr converting from wide out into the wind to make it 37-25.
It became an arm-wrestle from there as the Steelers looked to close it out and their cause was helped by the yellow-carding of Waikato prop Paul Alo-Emile for a high tackle.
With five minutes to go standout halfback Pulu was yellow carded in front of his posts for a professional foul but an intercept stopped the subsequent Waikato scrum move the ball was hoofed out of danger territory.
Counties Manukau (Sherwin Stowers, August Pulu, Fritz Lee, Toni Pulu tries; Baden Kerr 4 conversions, 3 penalty goals) Waikato (Trent Renata, Rory Grice, Sam Christie tries; Renata 2 conversions, 2 penalty goals) . Halftime 20-11