Canterbury beat Auckland to push the former powerhouse to the brink
Canterbury whacked another nail in Auckland's coffin on Friday night. One more - a Waikato win against Bay of Plenty - will relegate them to the Mitre 10 Cup championship.
In the 100th match between the teams since 1883, the reigning champions edged Auckland 32-27 at Eden Park to secure a home semifinal next weekend.
While they'll host either Tasman or North Harbour for a spot in the final the following weekend, Auckland face an anxious wait to see if the Steamers can do them a huge favour in Tauranga on Saturday.
A week after losing the Ranfurly Shield to Taranaki, Canterbury outscored Auckland four tries to three, bulldozed their scrum and feasted on their wonky lineout.
It pushed them 48-47 ahead of Auckland in the head-to-head stakes - they've also drawn five times - although the later hasn't tasted success against the red and blacks since 2013.
Canterbury halfback Jack Stratton, who came on at halftime after Ere Enari was carted off with a suspected broken ankle, scored a crucial second half brace to help get the visitors home.
But they had to overcome a late yellow card to midfielder Inga Finau, the loss of vice-captain Tim Bateman to injury, and Auckland midfielder TJ Faiane's try with five minutes to play to sneak home.
Needing a converted try to snatch the win and secure their place in the premiership, Auckland had possession about 35m out from the line. However, flanker Akira Ioane dropped the ball cold.
It summed up Auckland's season in one moment.
The former provincial powerhouse laid an egg from their season opening loss to Counties Manukau, and have finished their campaign with a miserable 3-7 record.
Canterbury trailed 13-12 at halftime, before Stratton's first five-pointer marked the first of three lead changes in the second half.
Auckland wing Joe Ravouvou pounced on a loose lineout throw and scampered 25m to the line to put the home side up 20-19 after 54 minutes.
But Stratton put Canterbury up for good a few minutes later, after Richie Mo'unga shredded the home side with a typically elusive run.
Earlier, Canterbury, resting a bunch of players with one eye on next weekend's semifinal, setup camp inside Auckland's 22 from the opening kickoff, and finally turned their dominance into points after eight minutes.
After the visitors were twice held up attempting to maul over the line, rookie wing Braydon Ennor, a St Kentigern's old boy, touched down via a lovely Bateman pass.
It was Ennor's 10th try of the competition, giving him a two-try buffer over Otago's Jona Nareki at the top of the try-scoring leaderboard.
But Auckland hit back immediately through Hurricanes try-scoring machine Vince Aso, who finished off the break flanker Ioane started with a smart offload to Ravouvou.
Having already been steamrolled and penalised a couple of times attempting to stop Canterbury's rolling maul, lock Ben Nee Nee copped a yellow card 21 minutes into the match for illegally stoping a maul.
Fullback Caleb Makene barged over out wide a couple of minutes later, but it was Auckland who finished the first half on top, as Jono Hickey slotted a couple of penalties to give them a 13-12 lead.
Canterbury 32 (Braydon Ennor, Caleb Makene, Jack Stratton 2 tries; Richie Mo'unga 3 con, 2 pen) Auckland 27 (Vince Aso, Joe Ravouvou, TJ Faiane tries; Jono Hickey 2 con, 2 pen, Harry Plummer con). HT: 12-13