Alex McLeod returns to reflect on who improved and who regressed over the past fortnight of Mitre 10 Cup rugby.
1 – Auckland (4-0) UP 3
Not many would have picked it at the beginning of the season, but Auckland continues to surprise in 2018 as they sit atop the Premiership standings as the competition’s only undefeated province.
A dominant 35-17 win over Waikato at Eden Park in week three was somewhat expected by most onlookers, but what followed took many by surprise as they dished out a 36-10 hiding to Tasman at the same venue eight days later.
Their determination on defence – particularly in their win over Tasman – has been commendable, while the added influence of All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu, who bagged himself a first half hat-trick against the Mako, was immense.
Alama Ieremia’s men could have their unbeaten run broken as they hit the road to face Canterbury in Christchurch this week, but for now, the table-toppers can be proud of overcoming their underdog status.
2 – Canterbury (3-1) UP 4
Canterbury looks like a side that has vastly improved from the one that fell well short of Tasman in their season-opener in Blenheim last month.
Three wins on the trot has hoisted them up to third place on the Premiership ladder, with hard-fought wins over Bay of Plenty and Manawatu in consecutive weeks aiding their charge for a fourth successive title.
Their forward pack appeared to be clinical at both the set piece and in general play, while their backline was typically efficient in exploiting the weaknesses exposed by the Steamers and Turbos.
Two highly-anticipated clashes against North Harbour in Albany and an unbeaten Auckland outfit at AMI Stadium beckons this week, and should they emerge victorious in both matches, they will be in great stead to etch their name onto the trophy yet again at the halfway point of the competition.
3 – Hawke’s Bay (3-1) UP 2
A pair of eagerly-contested battles against Counties Manukau and Bay of Plenty saw Hawke’s Bay register a loss and a win, but despite their inconsistency in results, their competence in performance pushes them up a couple of places in the power rankings.
In Jonah Lowe, they have one of the competition’s finest outside backs, with the Hurricanes flyer injecting pace and energy from the right wing as he bagged three tries against the Steelers and Steamers.
Brad Weber and Tiaan Falcon having created a formidable partnership in the halves, while the work rate of loose forwards Josh Kaifa and Gareth Evans has been admirable. If Hawke’s Bay are to continue to their impressive start to their Championship title charge, then the services of these players will be critical, especially with an away clash against Waikato on the horizon.
4 – Wellington (3-2) UP 3
Three matches in nine days would be a tough ask for most sides, but Wellington stepped up to the plate for the most part as they picked up two wins and a loss in that period.
A predictable 52-7 thrashing of Southland at Westpac Stadium emphasised their standing as Mitre 10 Cup heavyweights, but that was all undermined five days later when they were upset 43-31 by a plucky Waikato side in Hamilton.
Credit must be given where credit is due though, as Chris Gibbes’ men dusted themselves off to comeback with a hard-earned 33 19 win over North Harbour back into the capital.
The likes of hooker Asafo Aumua and wing Malo Tuitama have contributed heavily to the Lions’ progress in the competition this season, and the threat that those two pose will have Counties Manukau on edge as they prepare for their upcoming clash this week.
5 – Tasman (3-1) DOWN 4
If Tasman’s only match had been their 32-20 win over North Harbour at QBE Stadium during week three, they would have stayed firmly atop of the Premiership standings.
However, their unbeaten run came to a thudding halt when they crossed the bridge six days later to face Auckland and were soundly defeated 36-10 by the competition leaders.
While their efforts against North Harbour were commendable, they could not match the physicality presented by Auckland’s dominant forward pack, with the force of Patrick Tuipulotu too much to handle for the Mako. Set to face Taranaki in Nelson this weekend, Tasman will be hoping to steer their fortunes around to land them back in the winner’s circle.
6 – Bay of Plenty (2-2) DOWN 4
All of Bay of Plenty’s great early season form has quickly unravelled following back-to-back defeats against Canterbury and Hawke’s Bay.
The loss against reigning champions was somewhat expected, and the fight shown by the Steamers was valiant, but the one-point defeat to the Magpies in Napier will particularly sting.
The Steamers were in with a shout for the entirety of the seesaw battle, but a last minute try to Joe Apikotoa was converted by Tiaan Falcon to bestow the visitors with ample disappointment on their trip back home.
Nevertheless, first-five Mike Delany, midfielder Terrence Hepetema and outside back Chase Tiatia continue to impress in Bay of Plenty’s bid for a Championship title, which continues when they face North Harbour in Albany this week.
7 – North Harbour (2-2) DOWN 4
The top three sides from the last power rankings have all dropped down a quartet of placings, as North Harbour’s consecutive defeats at the hands of Tasman and Wellington forces them down to 7th spot.
The Heat were competitive in both matches right up until the final quarter of each contest, so perhaps a lack of depth on the bench or waning fitness could be blamed for their downfalls.
However, coach Tom Coventry will not be looking for excuses, particularly when he had 14 players with Super Rugby experience at his disposal for both encounters. Next up are two matches in the space of four days against Canterbury and Bay of Plenty, both of which are sides that have proven their worth at various stages in the opening rounds of the competition, meaning North Harbour will need to step their game up a notch.
8 – Waikato (2-3) UP 1
Perhaps Waikato deserve a promotion worthy of more than one spot, but the new Ranfurly Shield holders should not mind too much.
That’s because they claimed the Log o’ Wood for the 11 th time in their 97-year history thanks to their 33-19 win over Taranaki in New Plymouth.
The result followed their shock 43-31 win at home over Wellington earlier in the week, and after a trio of unfortunate losses to start their 2018 campaign, the Mooloos appear well on track to make a play-off run in the Championship.
Before that, though, they need to defend the Shield against a budding Hawke’s Bay side in a couple days’ time.
9 – Otago (2-2) UP 4
Two shaky losses to Wellington and Northland to start Otago’s season has been countered in convincing fashion via an emphatic win over Manawatu and a tense victory over Northland.
The return of skipper Michael Collins at fullback has undoubtedly benefitted the way in which Otago have gone about proceedings in 2018, with the Blues outside back forming a striking partnership with sevens stars Vilimoni Koroi and Jona Nareki.
A southern derby against Southland in Invercargill looms for the Razorbacks, but should they overcome their winless opponents, the likelihood of a Championship play-offs appearance will catapult.
10 – Counties Manukau (2-3) UP 2
Consecutive wins for Counties Manukau sees them jump into the top 10 for the first time this season, and it took grit and determination to get there.
A late try to Matiaha Martin was required for the Steelers to down Hawke’s Bay 29-25 in Napier, which is no mean feat given how well the Magpies have been playing this season, although it took them a while to get up and running against Southland before eventually drawing away to take a 43-26 win.
The introduction of teenage prodigy Etene Nanai-Seturo against the Stags will be pleasing for coach Darryl Suasua, as the 19-year-old displayed his fleet-footedness eloquently to help dispatch the hosts.
Steelers fans will be hoping to see more of the same from the former St Kentigern’s College pupil as he prepares to take the field against Wellington in Pukekohe later this week.
11 – Taranaki (2-3) DOWN 3
It’s been a disappointing couple of weeks for Taranaki fans.
An uninspiring 26-19 win against Counties Manukau in Pukekohe was followed by an injury time 18-17 loss to Northland in Whangarei.
The worst was still yet to come for Willie Rickards’ side, as they fell 33-19 to an upbeat Waikato team to snatch the Ranfurly Shield out of the Bulls’ hands.
On the back of three lacklustre displays, Taranaki will need to pick themselves up quickly as they are set to come up against a Tasman side that is looking to right their wrongs following their loss to Auckland later this week in Nelson.
12 – Northland (1-3) DOWN 1
Although Northland showed plenty of heart in overcoming Taranaki in stoppage time and falling just shy of beating Otago, they will be disheartened at the fact they could not put either of those games to bed.
Heavily reliant on the services of former All Black Rene Ranger, the Taniwha haven’t quite been able to recreate the surprise form that they displayed during last year’s campaign, and a lot of that comes down to the loss of Jack Goodhue to the All Blacks and Solomon Alaimalo to Tasman.
With a clash against Manawatu at home this week, the Taniwha will view that as a match that presents a very realistic opportunity of getting them back into Championship play-off contention.
13 – Manawatu (1-3) DOWN 3
After starting so promisingly against Waikato in their season-opener, Manawatu have suffered a string of defeats that sees them drop nine places in three weeks.
After having half a century of points served to them by a rampant Otago outfit in Palmerston North, a trip to Christchurch did the Turbos no favours as Canterbury ousted them 34-23 in a stern battle.
Fullback Junior Laloifi and midfielder Rob Thompson continue to impress with their individual outings, but more is required from the rest of the squad if Manawatu are to push for a finals spot in the Championship.
With Northland next up on the schedule, the Turbos will be desperate to notch up their second win of the year in what is expected to be a very close affair.
14 – Southland (0-4) N/C
Southland’s winless run has now stretched out to 15 matches in a streak that dates back to October 2016.
The Stags’ inability to win matches comes down purely to their lack of depth and quality in comparison to other unions.
While they are able to foot it with their opponents for certain periods of time – as exemplified in the second half against Wellington and the first half against Counties Manukau over the past fortnight – they aren’t capable of sustaining it for the entire 80 minutes.
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