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Harbour heartbroken as last-minute penalty grabs Auckland semi-final berth

By Tom Vinicombe
Harry Plummer. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Auckland have stormed back from a 15-6 deficit to claim a well-deserved victory over North Harbour in the first knockout match of the NPC finals.

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The game was locked up 18-all with time up on the clock but Auckland first five-eighth Harry Plummer – who’d had an off night with the boot – stepped up to nail a post-buzzer penalty and send Auckland into the semi-finals.

Despite North Harbour holding the higher ranking on the table and home advantage, it was the visitors who went into the match as favourites , taking the first lead of the game thanks to a Plummer penalty in the 14th minute of the clash.

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Harbour took control of proceedings shortly before halftime, however, with Bryn Gatland and Tevita Li both touching down shortly before the break to push the home side out to a nine-point lead at the break.

That halftime rest was perhaps the turning point of the match, ironically, with Gatland not returning to the field for the second spell after copping a blow to the head en route to his score. Li didn’t last much longer; a mid-air collision between him and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck saw the former depart for an HIA and the latter handed a yellow card for the dangerous challenge.

Auckland were able to slowly wrestle their way back into the contest with All Blacks Akira Ioane and Patrick Tuipulotu both delivering impressive performances. Ioane was the man to finally break through Harbour’s resolute defence in the 52nd minute, scoring Auckland’s first try of the match.

Harbour slowed their opposition’s advances with a 55-metre penalty kick from Shaun Stevenson late in the match but Henry Taefu missed an attempt on goal of his own, taking over from the sidelined Gatland. The home side also turned down a straightforward shot from in front to push for a try but it came to nought, and Auckland were eventually able to level the scores with time almost up on the clock thanks to a strong effort on the goal line from reserve loose forward Terrell Peita.

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Plummer couldn’t add the additional points – striking the posts – and it appeared extra time was inevitable until Harbour hooker Luteru Tolai was pinged for getting offside at the breakdown and Plummer made amends for his earlier miss, sending Auckand into the semi-finals.

Despite their team getting the win, it wasn’t all good news for the Auckland supporters with All Blacks prop Angus Ta’avao clashing heads with teammate Tomas Aoake towards the end of the first half and getting stretchered off the field.

The head clash will almost certainly rule him out from next week’s fixture while it could also have repercussions on national selection for the affable prop.

There are three more quarter-finals left to play this weekend with Canterbury hosting Northland, Hawke’s Bay travelling to Wellington and Waikato and Bay of Plenty going to battle in Hamilton.

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Auckland 21 (Akira Ioane 51min, Terrell Peita 73min tries; Harry Plummer con, 3 pen)
bt North Harbour 18 (Bryn Gatland 36min, Tevita Li 40min tries; Gatland con, pen; Shaun Stevenson pen)

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