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Aaron Smith continues unbeaten run in NPC as Manawatu beat Otago

By Alex McLeod

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All Blacks star Aaron Smith has made it two wins from as many outings in his return to provincial rugby as Manawatu beat Otago 27-14 in Palmerston North on Saturday.

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Smith, who has remained in New Zealand while the All Blacks play abroad ahead of the birth of his second child in November, started in Manwatu’s third win of their 2021 NPC campaign in a result that keeps the Turbos in the top two of the Championship table.

The 32-year-old halfback was a prominent figure throughout the match, and while he wasn’t at his mercurial best, his presence proved influential as Manawatu outplayed Otago from the outset.

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Jordie Barrett gave the All Blacks backfield confidence with his performance | Healthspan Elite Performer of the Week
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Jordie Barrett gave the All Blacks backfield confidence with his performance | Healthspan Elite Performer of the Week

Despite two missed attempts at goal by one-test All Blacks pivot Brett Cameron early on, the hosts asserted their dominance in the opening quarter with two well-taken tries.

The first of which came via ex-Crusaders and Highlanders wing Tima Fainga’anuku, who finished off a sweeping counter-attacking move by star loose forward Braydon Iose from the middle of the park in the ninth minute.

That was soon followed by a try to midfielder Josiah Maraku, who latched onto a delicately-placed grubber kick by Cameron to double his side’s lead after 18 minutes.

Otago needed to be the next team to strike next, and they did just that in the 28th minute when former Chiefs No 8 Dylan Nel crashed over from the back of a rolling maul.

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That try was good reward for the visitors, who had fought back strongly from a significant lack of territory to power their way through to Manawatu’s tryline through their strong set piece work.

A penalty goal to Cameron at the half-hour mark extended Manawatu’s lead to 10 points, which they held through to half-time, even in spite of a scintillating burst up the middle of the field by Otago hooker Ricky Jackson near the end of the half.

Some desperate Manawatu defence brought the inexperienced Highlanders rake to the ground near halfway and forced a penalty, but both teams were fortunate not to have been disciplined further when a scuffle broke out following an altercation that involved Smith, Jackson and Otago duo Josh Hill and Sam Fischli.

Manawatu then opened the second half with a bang when prop Jarred Adams strolled in for a try just two minutes after half-time, before Cameron added an additional three points via the boot 15 minutes later.

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That left Otago trailing 27-7 with about 20 minutes to play, but they were handed a reprieve when Manawatu’s substitute prop Flyn Yates was the victim of his team’s ill-discipline when he sin binned in the 65th minute.

Just a minute later, Otago skipper James Lentjes went over from the back of another rolling maul to score Otago’s second try of the contest, but that proved too little too late as the away side couldn’t break Manawatu’s defence throughout the rest of the match.

Tom Donnelly’s team weren’t helped by the early withdrawal of halfback Kayne Hammington as a result of a head knock inside the opening few minutes, leaving youngster James Arscott to mark up against Smith, his idol and mentor at the Highlanders, for most of the contest.

The match also saw former All Blacks flyer Nehe Milner-Skudder make a brief appearance off the bench in the final 10 minutes to help close out a result keeps Manawatu just five points astray from Championship-leaders Taranaki.

Smith and the Turbos will now turn their focus to next Sunday’s clash with Southland in Invercargill, while Otago, who have finally played after a month-and-a-half without action due to lockdown restrictions, will have to dust themselves off for next week’s home encounter with Taranaki.

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Aaron Smith continues unbeaten run in NPC as Manawatu beat Otago

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