Auckland's league team trudged off Lower Hutt's Fraser Park muddy and mightily relieved on two counts yesterday.
Importantly, the visitors had come back from 12-10 down at halftime to beat Wellington 32-20 and claim the outright lead after four rounds of the Albert Baskerville Shield national competition.
But even better was the news filtering in that Auckland winger Jack Fowler had been cleared of a broken neck after being rushed to Hutt Hospital early in the game.
The 19-year-old's head snapped back and he was knocked out after getting in a bad position while attempting a tackle and play stopped for 15 minutes as an ambulance was called.
"It was a big impact, which hurts the neck, causes concussion of the brain and the young fella was swallowing his tongue and convulsing for a while," Auckland coach Brent Gemmell said.
"Obviously that'll be the end of his season and it was just one of those real scary moments in football that you don't like.
"But we're confident he's going to be OK.
"It gave us enough inspiration to help us climb into that second half and get the result."
Simple Wellington errors helped Auckland to an early 10-0 lead but captain Matt Everitt hit back with a try, an assist and two conversions as the hosts enjoyed a halftime lead.
But Auckland scored the next four tries in succession to rack up an unassailable lead.
Two had an element of luck, as kicks ricocheted in helpful directions, but there was no question the better team won.
The loss drops Wellington to third, behind South Island on points difference, and makes Saturday's home game against fourth-placed Counties Manukau a must-win.
"You can only afford to lose one game in this competition otherwise it makes it too hard," Wellington coach Trevor Clark said.
"We're definitely under pressure but Counties will be just as much under pressure as us. You've just got to make your luck and Auckland certainly made their luck today."
Clark was baffled as to why his team had seemingly fallen asleep at halftime.
"I certainly think the boys were up for the game and at halftime we were certainly in the game.
"But the same intensity didn't come out of the shed in the second half and those fluky kicks didn't help."
Auckland are now warm title favourites, given they won yesterday despite the Fowler scare and the late withdrawal of their two star players, former New Zealand Warriors Malo Solomona and Jeremiah Pai.
"I was extremely pleased with the way in which we started that second half," Gemmell said.
"They're very tough opposition so I was never confident. I knew we'd have to come down here and play the whole 80 minutes to get the points and I'm very pleased with the effort from the team."
It completed a miserable day for Wellington, with their under-17 side losing 38-22 to Auckland in the Mark Graham Trophy and the under-15s thrashed 38-10 in the Nathan Cayless Cup.
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