Ranfurly Shield and top spot safe for Taranaki
Taranaki have locked up the Ranfurly Shield and the top spot in the Mitre 10 Cup premiership with a game to spare after a tense 46-25 win over Manawatū in New Plymouth.
Off the back of a stellar first half performance from wing Waisake Naholo, who must surely be in the reckoning to start for the All Blacks in Brisbane a week from Saturday, Taranaki got the better of a battling Manawatū who showed their typical tenacity without being able to produce enough quality.
Taranaki, who are still to play North Harbour on Sunday, can not be overtaken from the top of the table and can also look to manage their squad in Albany with an eye to the following week's semifinals.
The first half turned into the Naholo and Seta Tamanivalu show for Taranaki as the Fijian pair scored a brace of tries each, as the holders opened up a 27-6 lead.
Manawatū had looked like they were doing a reasonable job containing Taranaki's threats and would have been reasonably happy they were only trailing 8-6 as the half hour closed in.
However, tighthead prop Michael Alaalatoa let his side down badly when he was yellow carded for playing the ball on the ground after a quick penalty tap was taken inside their 22.
From that point Manawatū were made to pay dearly.
Firstly, Tamanivalu crashed over from short range after Naholo had opened the scoring with a ripper finish in the corner.
The scoring, and Alaatatoa's pain did not stop there as Tamanivalu scored his second before Naholo added another clinical finish right on the stroke of halftime to put a real dent in any hopes Manawatū had of getting their hands on the Shield after a four decade-long absence.
While their cause was also not helped by playmaker Otere Black being helped off after he suffered a knee injury, the first half also highlighted just how dangerous Taranaki's attack can be.
Game after game they have shown their ability to score tries and that's been evident in the fact they have racked up bonus points in every match they've played.
That attacking attitude has hurt them at times, though, and they were a bit loose in the second half, although they were not helped by the loss of three backs to injury.
That created a bit of confusion in defence and Manawatū exploited it in the second half when replacement halfback Jamie Booth scored to give the challengers a hope of a comeback.
Hope was short-lived though, as Charlie Ngatai crashed through some rather ineffectual defence to restore Taranaki's healthy advantage before Manawatū struck back again.
A yellow card late to Taranaki replacement Declan O'Donnell opened the door again for the visitors and they were good enough to exploit their advantage when Jade Te Rure scored after the TMO ruled Booth had not lost the ball.
But Taranaki dashed their hopes again with two excellent late tries.
Taranaki 46 (Seta Tamanivalu 2, Waisake Naholo 2, Charlie Ngatai, Kylem O'Donnell, Adrian Wyrill tries; Marty McKenzie 4 con, pen) Manawatū 25 (Jamie Booth, Curtis Ambrose, Jade Te Rure tries; Otere Black 2 pen, Te Rure 2 con). HT: 27-6.