Tasman have defended the Mitre 10 Cup title in dramatic fashion, snatching a one-point victory to deny Auckland another treasured crown.
David Havili proved an inspirational figure for his underdog side – slotting a 70th-minute penalty to grab the lead and then win a crucial breakdown turnover at the death that effectively sealed the upset victory in a match that never got going from an attacking perspective.
Finals bring a different form of tension and Auckland will rue two yellow cards that proved hugely costly, and their failure to score a try.
Replacement playmaker Simon Hickey had a chance to push Auckland in front but as his sliced dropped goal slid agonisingly past the right hand post with three minutes left, the anguish on his face said it all for fans in blue and white.
A crowd of 13,131 – which would have been significantly more had the match been staged in the afternoon – seized the free attendance to pack out the North stand and find their voice in the closing stages.
It was Tasman’s supporters, however, who celebrated at the final whistle.
Tasman become only the second team in Mitre 10 Cup history to win successive finals – following Canterbury in 2008-2013 and 2015-2017.
It hasn’t been a vintage year for the Mako as they dropped matches against North Harbour, Canterbury and Auckland en route to the final but, when it mattered, they found the required composure at Eden Park.
Last time they were here Tasman copped a 31-10 beating in round six. They sure rectified that result.
From easy beats – once on the verge of being kicked out of the competition – to vaunted contenders, Tasman are a success story everyone can recognise.
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Auckland defended tenaciously while one man short to withstand multiple Tasman onslaughts and not concede with fullback Zarn Sullivan – ruled to have intentionally slapped down a pass with Tasman wing Leicester Fainga’anuku unmarked outside him – in the bin.
But Alama Ieremia’s side could not find their attacking punch.
Tasman suffered a major blow 15 minutes into the first spell when they lost influential playmaker Mitchell Hunt, this year’s second highest top point scorer, after a head clash with Auckland flanker Niko Jones.
With Hunt absent, Havili came in from the backfield to pop up at first receiver more frequently and assume much of the tactical responsibility, including the goal-kicking duties.
Auckland brought urgency and aggression to their defensive and breakdown work but their lineout in the first half was shambolic.
Losing four of their own throws squandered several attacking opportunities, nullifying their potent backline threats such as dynamic wing Salesi Rayasi, who had claimed 14 tries in his past eight matches.
While the lineout battled Auckland’s scrum, anchored by former All Blacks prop Angus Ta’avao, enjoyed dominance.
This area allowed the boot of Harry Plummer and Sullivan, who knocked over a 55 metre penalty on the angle as Auckland gained ascendency. Tasman, however, finished the half strongly.
While they struggled to penetrate Auckland’s staunch defence Fainga’anuku continued his prominence with destructive carries on the left edge and further in-field to get Tasman on the front foot.
Rewards first came in the form of referee Nick Briant losing patience with Auckland’s discipline to send captain Ta’avao to the bin for repeated team infringements.
From the next rolling maul Tasman hooker Quentin MacDonald rumbled over for opening try and a 10-9 half time lead for the visitors.
Havili’s performance, in the end, was the difference between the two teams.
Auckland 12 (Harry Plummer 3 pens, Zarn Sullivan pen)
Tasman 13 (Quentin MacDonald try, David Havili con, 2 pens)
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