North Harbour remain unbeaten with thrilling win over Northland
North Harbour's dream return to the Premiership continues to roll on, but boy were they made to work for it.
In a thrilling clash in Whangarei, Harbour scored two tries in the final three minutes to get out of jail against a brave Northland side with a 31-22 victory - their fifth-straight win of the season.
It was by no means a complete display as their attack struggled to get going for the first 60 minutes. But with their backs against the wall trailing by five points in the shadows of fulltime, coach Tom Coventry got the exact response he would have been hoping for.
His team showed character in spades and kept their cool with the ball before Ben Volavola and Matt Vaega crossed late to silence the healthy home crowd at Toll Stadium.
The result ensured Harbour remain second in the standings, three points behind fellow unbeaten side Canterbury.
But provided the red and blacks take care of business in Wellington on Sunday, those unblemished records will go on the line in a top-of-the table clash when Canterbury travel up to Albany next weekend.
While Northland ply their trade in the Championship, the Taniwha have shown they are more than capable of mixing it with the top tier and it always shaped as a danger game for the visitors.
Nothing separated the two teams on the scoreboard after an absorbing first half and they went into the break locked at 9-9.
There were few clear-cut chances for either side but the home team made most of the running, stretching the Harbour defence with long periods of possession.
It was a patient attacking display from Northland, with wing Jone Macilai's powerful charges regularly getting them on the front foot.
Harbour were up to the challenge, though.
The visitors set the tone early by forcing a turnover when Northland showed their intent by rejecting a shot at goal.
And they were not afraid to chance their arm with the ball, almost taking the lead late in the half when a cross-field kick from Bryn Gatland in his own 22m put Matt Duffie in space.
The close nature of the contest continued after the break as both defences refused to budge.
And it took a special play from Northland winger Jordan Hyland to break the game open in the 57th-minute.
After No 8 Jaycob Matiu laid a platform in midfield, Hyland received the ball on the right flank, beat opposite Tevita Li before going on a scything 40m run to score near the posts.
That seemed to spark Harbour's attack iton action. They immediately hit back through Gatland's fourth penalty of the match before Li redeemed himself to give his side the lead.
The winger vindicated skipper James Parson's decision to go for the lineout after fullback Shaun Stevenson managed to free his arms to find Gatland, who put Li over in the corner.
Then it was Northland's turn find another gear and they looked to have done enough when Peter Breen landed his second penalty in three minutes.
But Harbour had other ideas. After piling on the pressure deep in Northland territory, Ben Volavola sliced through from 10m out.
Gatland held his nerve to nail the tricky conversion before a Matt Vaega intercept put the result beyond doubt.
North Harbour 31 (Tevita Li tries, Bryn Gatland, Ben Volavola, Matt Vaega 4 pen, 2 con) Northland 22 (Jordan Hyland tries; Dan Hawkins 3 pen, Peter Breen 2 pen, con) HT: 9-9