The message was clear for the Waikato rugby team after suffering their second loss to Northland in 13 years and their first in Hamilton in more than 30 years - ignore the game plan at your peril.
Waikato's ITM Cup premiership campaign derailed early at Waikato Stadium on Saturday with that 29-27 loss and there seems little doubt the players will once again have their game structure hammered into them this week going into a tough period with three premiership opponents in eight days.
The home team had the ideal opportunity to get their season off to a flyer in playing two championship division teams first up, with six days between the matches.
But after beating North Harbour 42-22 away last weekend, Waikato seemed either unable or unwilling to stick to their well-rehearsed pattern and as a result never shook off the visitors and then blew a narrow 27-22 lead three minutes from the end.
"It's gutting," said Waikato head coach Chris Gibbes. "First game back on our home track, we had our junior march-past today with all our young kids coming to watch us, along with our sponsors and fans, and not sticking to the game plan has cost us the game.
"I just think the way we went about it wasn't very smart. so it's quite disappointing."
Waikato drifted in and out of their structure but were never able to stick with it for prolonged periods.
Playing into the northeasterly breeze in the first spell, they kept ball in hand but after an early Ash Moeke penalty goal for Northland they were lucky not to be down by more after four minutes.
Second-five Jackson Willison just managed to ankle-tap flying Northland left wing Mateo Malupo, and then get up and grab him again and rob him of the ball to stop what seemed a certain try.
Instead, Waikato put together everything that is good about their game, sweeping downfield, forcing multiple phases and manipulating the defence for an overlap try to flanker Matt Vant Leven that put the home side ahead 7-3. But the story of the game was the inability of either side to completely stamp their authority on it and there were seven lead changes.
Soon after, a Waikato breakout led by Willison and carried on by Declan O'Donnell and Save Tokula turned to custard with a spilt ball snapped up by dazzling Northland fullback Faatoina Autagavaia who then also finished off the try 70 metres down field after combining with centre Rene Ranger.
Waikato had the lead back by halftime, 17-14, thanks to a well-executed lineout drive bringing a try to hooker Marcel Cummings-Toone and the conversion from the boot of fullback Trent Renata. But Moeke was also kicking accurately for goal and the visitors were right in the match, even more so two minutes after the break when Malupo kicked through and beat Renata to the touchdown for the try after Waikato first-five Sam Christie spilt a high ball on defence.
With Northland leading 22-20, Christie was 13 minutes later sent to the sin bin for tackling a kick-chaser without the ball after a strong blindside scrum break by halfback Samisoni Fisilau.
Waikato survived the 10 minutes with only 14 players and Gibbes then went to the bench. Five minutes later it looked like the home side might have scored the winning try when young right wing O'Donnell scored a stunning touchdown, zooming between a prop and a wing and then veering out, in and out again to dot down untouched.
Renata's conversion put Waikato ahead 27-22 but three minutes from the end the home team's discipline let them down again. Northland coach Adriaan Ferris overruled his players from the coaching box and insisted they kick to the corner instead of for goal and it paid off. Northland won a clean lineout 5m out and drove over the line for standout flanker Dan Pryor to score the tie-up try and Moeke made no mistake with the conversion from near the touchline to clinch a famous victory.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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