Wellington wrecking balls power through Northland as home semifinal beckons
He's good, Jackson Garden-Bachop, but he also admits there's no method to the magic.
Just when you thought you'd seen it all from Wellington this year, Garden-Bachop produced a new trick: the chip and chase rebound off the crossbar try at Westpac Stadium.
It was a spectacular entree before the second half floodgates opened again, as the Lions beat Northland 36-18, their ninth win from 10 to march towards a Mitre 10 Cup championship semifinal back home next weekend.
Garden-Bachop had the ball on a string for much of this season but he's never hit the crossbar with a chip before. Or regathered and scored the try, for that matter.
"That was a bit off the cuff. We had a penalty advantage and I saw there wasn't much cover behind so I thought I'd have a crack. The posts were in the way and it fell into my hands which was nice. I probably should claim it, but it was a bit lucky," he said.
Combined with some more destruction from dynamic hooker Asafo Aumua - the All Blacks tourist in waiting who came off the bench in the 45th minute and bagged a try-scoring double - Wellington flexed their muscle ahead of the semis.
Northland, who could well be the opponents again, face a nervous wait in second spot with Bay of Plenty, Manawatu and Otago all potentially swooping past them by Sunday night.
Northland were energetic and willing in pursuit of a bonus point at least, and Wellington looked average at times, but the runaway championship leaders can strike from nowhere and put teams to sleep.
"That's the game we're trying to play: just attack the space wherever it is, and the best way to get it there whether it's by hand or by foot or by carrying," Garden-Bachop said.
"It was a bit disjointed at times. Credit to Northland who did a really good job of mucking up our rucks and we were a bit inaccurate. We weren't getting the dominant carries and quick ball we have all year."
Garden-Bachop chanced his arm just before halftime and it paid off spectacularly, the ball bouncing gently from the bar and landing in his welcoming grasp. By design or not, it looked like a casual kick about at the local park.
It was in the balance before a double strike from Wellington's dual wrecking balls Aumua and Alex Fidow in the third quarter and it was all over. Fidow's try after an Aumua burst ensured the Lions' 10th bonus point from as many matches - nine of them wins - as the tryfest continued.
Julian Savea added the icing, strolling in on the right flank to make it safe with just over 10 to go before the electric Aumua, who couldn't stay out of the game, cantered over for his second from some simple catch and pass.
All Black Vaea Fifita returned for a cameo and produced some bone-jarring hits for Wellington, then got a chance to run later as if Northland didn't have enough issues to deal with.
It wasn't so aesthetically pleasing early, though. Wellington had their noses in front 12-10 after a dire first half lit up by some moments of brilliance.
Amid all the pushed passes, dropped ball and turnovers, Northland started stronger and a pinpoint Rene Ranger kick through found a sliding Jordan Hyland for the opening try. It looked marginal but the giant winger got just enough downward pressure, even if home fans disagreed loudly.
Wellington had to fire up after a poor opening quarter and the ever-impressive Thomas Umaga-Jensen provided the spark. Not unlike his uncle Tana on the same ground so many times, Umaga-Jensen steamed onto a flat ball and brushed three tackles to score.
Northland muscled up, forced breakdown pressure and edged back in front but some medical mishaps took the wind from their sails a touch. Lock Tim Bond caused major concern when he reeled from a collision and was down for nearly 10 minutes, then carried off on a medicab in a neck brace but thankfully moving his arms. He went to hospital for x-rays and team officials reported he was in good spirits.
Flanker Murray Douglas also departed injured and Wellington grabbed some momentum.
Predictably Aumua provided it, first with a jolting tackle that sent shockwaves through the stadium just minutes after his arrival from the bench. Then Aumua latched onto a rolling maul and plunged over for a more conventional hooker's try and Wellington didn't need another sniff after that.
Wellington 36 (Asafo Aumua 2, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Alex Fidow, Julian Savea tries; Garden-Bachop 3 con) Northland 18 (Jordan Hyland, Jack Goodhue tries; Dan Hawkins con, 2 pen). HT: 12-10