A mini-Manu Vatuvei ran riot as Auckland ambushed the Canterbury Bulls with a second-half try-fest in the national provincial rugby league grand final.
Sione Tongia, a strapping centre almost as powerful and fast as the Warriors' wing, scored a hat-trick of tries in Auckland's eight tries to three 38-18 win at Mount Smart Stadium yesterday.
It was not so much a case of Canterbury eating humble pie as being humbled by Pai. Jeremiah Pai, the Auckland skipper, stand-off half and man of the match, ran the cutter cleverly in the second spell, creating three of the four tries the home side scored in a withering mid-match burst.
It was a triple disaster for the Bulls, who lost their unbeaten record, the Bartercard provincial premiership trophy and the Rugby League Cup in one fell swoop.
"It's very disappointing to go unbeaten all season and then lose the one that counts," Bulls coach Brent Stuart said. "I don't think this team deserved to get beaten by that scoreline, but we will just have to go on and try again next year."
The first half was the arm wrestle everyone anticipated, with both packs scrapping for supremacy. Canterbury appeared to gain an upper hand after the injection of big prop Kane Ferris from the interchange bench.
But Auckland led 8-6 at half time. Both its tries came from typical Tongia surges. The left-side centre brushed away smaller Canterbury tacklers as he rumbled over in the 16th and 36th minutes.
The Bulls briefly hit the front in the 29th minute, when hooker Nathan Sherlock squirmed over from dummy half after Auckland's marker defence went walk-about, but it was the only time Stuart's side had the lead.
Canterbury was swamped by a blue tidal wave with Pita Godinet touching down and Tongia completing his tackle after a searing break by Paletasala Ale.
Speedy second rower Chris Bamford then gave the Bulls a glimmer of hope. He slammed, scythed and shimmied his way through eight tackle attempts to score from a tap penalty in the 55th minute. That closed Auckland's lead to 18-12 and Stuart felt the Bulls were "back in it".
"All we had to do was complete the next set and get down their end again, but we lost the football on the second hit-up from the kick-off and they scored from there. We didn't see the ball for another 20 minutes, and they did a lot of damage in those 20 minutes, unfortunately."
Pai, a former Warriors and Parramatta player, supplied the sparkle for wing Suinta Laiseni, fullback Raymond Ulu Ioane and prop Wayne McDade to score killer-blow tries.
Godinet then usurped Pai as the playmaker for Monikura Tikinau's try, which put the final nail in Canterbury's coffin in the 65th minute.
Stuart was proud the Bulls "never stopped trying" and created several late chances. Centre Kasi Leka lost the ball in a lunge for the line before a late consolation second try to Sherlock. The hooker, and skipper Jonny Limmer, tackled hard around the ruck, while Stuart said Bamford, who is chasing an Australian contract, "had another outstanding game".
Auckland 38 (Sione Tongia 3, Pita Godinet, Sunita Laiseni, Raymond Ulu Ioane, Wayne McDade, Monikura Tikinau tries; Pai 2, Willie Heta goals) Canterbury Bulls 18 (Nathan Sherlock 2, Chris Bamford tries; Scott Hurrell 3 goals). HT: 8-6. Referee: Leon Williamson.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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