Twelve months after the historically proud province were relegated with a record of two wins and eight losses, Gibbes has turned the team around completely, shrugging off three early losses to win six straight and rocket through the playoffs.
Waikato came out of the gates firing, looking to exact revenge on the Otago team that had robbed them of the Ranfurly Shield just two weeks earlier.
Otago were constantly tested in the first half, stuck in their own half as the home side launched a barrage of attacks and scored three tries to race out to a 19-6 lead at half-time.
Hamilton Boys’ High School product Tupaea was the catalyst for Waikato’s attack, striking from set piece to break the line twice in the early going before crossing for a try of his own. To close out the half Tupaea set up Maori All Black Matty Lansdown with an impressive sky-hook style try assist after drawing a pair of defenders.
Otago’s only points of the half came from the boot of first-five eighth Josh Ioane – rumoured to be shifting to the Waikato to join the Chiefs next year – as he kicked two long-range penalties in the first. The visitors were simply shut down, able to manage just 12 seconds inside the opposition 22.
Otago had limited opportunities with ball in hand during the first forty minutes, failing to break the line as Waikato consumed 67% of possession.
While Waikato’s attack stole the headlines all season, their defence was as impressive as ever. Winger Sevu Reece proved that he is more than just a finisher, forcing Otago fullback Michael Collins to lose the ball in a perfectly timed tackle after chasing a high ball. Waikato missed just one tackle in the first half compared to Otago’s 18.
Coming out of the sheds the visitors looked like they still had life in them yet when flanker James Lentjes crossed to open the scoring in the second half, and when Ioane added the extras it was quickly back to a six-point margin.
However, Waikato hadn’t lost a step as winger Tyler Campbell picked off the ensuing kickoff and raced away to score under the posts and essentially erase the previous try.
From there Otago heads dropped. Perhaps fans knew it wasn’t their night when Ioane – who had shown poise all night – suffered a critical brain fade, accidentally tapping the ball instead of finding touch.
Waikato tacked on another score after a tightrope walk down the sideline from Lansdown helped free the electric Reece, who scored his second of the night and 14th of the season – the most in the competition.
Smith iced the game and locked the Championship trophy away for Waikato with a penalty in the 69th minute to push the margin to 36-13 – the game’s final score.
For the visiting Otago, it’s another crushing blow after they lost the 2016 promotion final by a narrow 14-17 margin and failed to reach the final last season, but they will still have one over Waikato as they hold the historic Ranfurly Shield over summer.
WAIKATO 36 (Reece 2, Tupaea, Lansdown, Campbell tries, Smith 4 cons, pen) OTAGO 13 (Lentjes try, Ioane con, 2 pens) HT 19-6
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