Talk about a heart-stopper! It’s long been known that the lure of the Ranfurly Shield can lift challenging teams to new levels, and that’s certainly what happened on Saturday night when Otago came north to take on Canterbury.
Otago were desperate for a win not only to finally get their hands on the Log, which they haven’t held since the late 1950′s, but for NPC points to claw their way into semi-final contention. Along with these incentives were the All Black careers of several Otago players; notably the front row and the halfback/first-five pairing of Brown and Kelleher.
Canterbury had a hard ask, after a huge struggle the previous week to remove the Shield from Waikato, we now had to turn around and defend it against a focussed Otago side. Going into the game as favourites was no help either. In honour of the Shield’s return, the embankment was re-opened at Jade Stadium, and the faithful flooded onto it along with many Otago supporters, all hopeful for a great game of rugby. They weren’t disappointed in that respect.
In windy, nor’west conditions which kept the air temperature balmy throughout the evening and prevented any chance of dew, the game kicked off and from that moment on the pace was frenetic. A Tony Brown drop goal early in the opening minutes signalled Otago’s intent, and the game became fast and furious as both sides went in with all guns blazing.
Canterbury struck back with a counter-attack move from their own 22 to put Vunibaka into space, and his speed burnt off the cover defence to score in the corner. Then Otago replied with two tries from seemingly nothing both came from high kicks put up into the swirling wind by South African import Justin Swart, cleverly pinpointing a Canterbury weakness behind the right wing to put Otago ahead 18-14 at the break.
No doubt Canterbury were feeling a bit rueful with the amount of possession they had turned over in the first half, not to mention a couple of botched scoring opportunites and the bounce of the ball for Otago to score their tries but four points in arrears didn’t seem insurmountable. One imagined that the word from the coach would be to hold on to possession a bit longer before spinning it wide, as this over-enthusiasm to play attacking rugby appeared to be the problem.
The second half began with a strong surge from Canterbury, only to see the ball turned over again and Otago move the ball back to within striking distance. A fast break by Kelleher saw him score in the corner, followed not much later by a penalty goal from Brown and suddenly things were starting to look grim for Canterbury down 14-26 on the scoreboard.
The next 10 minutes saw the ball turned over several times by both teams, a continuation from the first half and proof of the strong offensive defence from both sides. Canterbury launched a strong attack after a massive break by Reuben Thorne, only to see the ball knocked-on metres from the line. Otago got the scrum feed, but a missed kick for the line saw the Canterbury backline swing the ball left then cleverly switch play back to put Vunibaka into a gap. The try was scored and the deficit became 19-26. Moments later a penalty was awarded to Canterbury and the gap closed to 22-26.
However, by now the clock was beginning to tick by, and only 10 minutes remained. Knuckles on both sets of fans were starting to get white, and it was obvious that whoever scored next would probably go on to win the game. Play see-sawed back and forth as both teams put in some incredible defence, until Canterbury received a penalty to relieve the pressure in their own half with seven minutes to go.
Mehrts kicked the ball out just inside the Otago 22 and we had the throw to the lineout. Something went horribly wrong with communication, and the ball was thrown to no-mans-land at the back. Randall pounced at the ball on the ground and it seemed our chance was lost, but somehow the ball was turned over and Canterbury surged up the left wing side of the field. Then followed a series of rucks going back and forth, with seemingly no way through until a half break by Mehrts fed Caleb Ralph who had come over from the left wing. Ralph took the pass and surged through the only two poor tackles of the night from Otago to score under the posts.
The crowd went wild strangers were hugging strangers, tonsils were raw from hollering and the relief in the Red n Black supporters was palpable. The conversion went over and Canterbury took the lead 29-26 with three minutes left on the clock. Everyone was on the edge of their seats for the restart, but Canterbury took the ball in and then another break was made as we stormed down into the Otago half. Another mistake was made by Otago, and from the ensuing scrum Marshall hoofed the ball into touch and the final whistle sounded.
What a game! What an adrenalin rush! One has to feel slightly sorry for Otago, who seem destined to come close in Shield challenges, but never win. Otago played their best rugby so far this season, and had the win in their sights, but it was not to be. Standout players for them were Kronfeld, Randell, Kelleher and Swart. Unfortunately, Meeuws left the field early on in the game whilst Carl Hoeft was his usual lazy self around the field after his intial 10 minute effort. Surely he must be under the microscope as far as re-selection to the All Blacks goes.
Praise must be given to this Canterbury side, who showed tremendous composure and confidence to get up and win the game. Player of the day was Reuben Thorne, who was everywhere both on defence and attack, and put in a gutsy 80 minute effort. Vunibaka was lethal on attack, Ben Blair once again goal kicked admirably getting 5/7 in very windy conditions, Mehrts showed his class in setting up Ralph’s try, the front row and replacements gave the Otago set a good run for their money, and the rest of the team were just plain bloody marvellous.
The Ranfurly Shield lives on for another week in Christchurch, and we now look forward to a challenge from Northland. Well done boys, and we’ll see you again this Friday.