North Harbour hang on for another tense win over Otago in NPC opener

Shaun Stevenson celebrates a try for North Harbour.
DAVID ROWLAND/PHOTOSPORT

Shaun Stevenson celebrates a try for North Harbour.

North Harbour have backed up last year's Championship final triumph with another thrilling win over Otago to kick-off of their Mitre 10 Cup campaign.

Having been denied promotion to the Premiership courtesy of a last-minute Bryn Gatland drop-goal in 2016, Otago arrived in Albany with an appetite for revenge.

However, it was that man again who brought about their downfall, but only after Otago gave the home team a huge scare before surviving 19-17.

North Harbour's Karl Tuinukuafe gets a pass away despite the wet conditions during the Mitre 10 Cup opener against Otago.
PHIL WALTER/GETTY IMAGES

North Harbour's Karl Tuinukuafe gets a pass away despite the wet conditions during the Mitre 10 Cup opener against Otago.

Gatland masterminded the victory, kicking 14 points and setting up a try to build a 19-0 lead at a wet QBE Stadium.

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But having stumbled around for the first three quarters of the match, Otago stormed home on the back of their bench to set up a grandstand finish.

With one last chance to take the lead deep in opposition territory, they coughed up possession to let Harbour off the hook.

And that was the story for much of Otago's night as they struggled to control the ball in the slippery conditions.

Otago started the match with a clear plan to kick for territory and pressure Harbour into mistakes, which there was plenty of.

Trouble was, the visitors were just as guilty of wasting possession as the teams combined for six turnovers in the opening 10 minutes.

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With the rain only getting worse as the half wore on, the game was all about capitalising on opportunities. And Gatland was in a mood to make his rivals pay.

He had plenty of help from his forwards who, after absorbing the early pressure, forced Otago into several penalties which Gatland turned into a 9-0 lead.

The 22-year-old then showed off his running skills 10 minutes before the break to put the hosts in firm control.

Confusion among the Otago back-three saw Tevita Li gather a kick to put Harbour in attacking position before Gatland split the defence and offloaded back on the inside for Shaun Stevenson to cross under the posts.

Gatland eventually put a foot wrong early in the second half, although he could be forgiven for missing a 45m penalty in these conditions.

But barely a minute later, more ill-discipline from Otago saw him stretch the lead to 19-0.

It took Otago 55 minutes to finally get on the board through a penalty to debutant Josh Ioane.

And having being on the back foot for most of the contest, they then gave themselves a sniff after a piece of individual brilliance from replacement halfback Jonathan Ruru, who burned Harbour captain James Parsons off the back of a lineout.

Ruru thought he had a double just minutes later only for the TMO to overturn the on-field decision of try after spotting a knock-on in the lead-up.

But they were not to be denied a second time as Mitchell Scott scored in the corner off a superb cut-out pass from Ioane, who nailed the sideline conversion to reduce the deficit to just two points.

Despite having all the momentum, Otago failed to land the killer blow as Harbour once again held their nerve to take the four competition points.

North Harbour 19 (Shaun Stevenson tries; Bryn Gatland con, Gatland 4 pen) Otago 17 (Jonathan Ruru, Mitchell Scott tries; Josh Ioane 2 con, Josh Ioane pen). HT: 16-0.

 

 - Stuff

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