Mid Canterbury avenge past defeats
It's one down, three to go for the Canterbury region after Mid Canterbury secured their first major title in 15 years with a 26-20 win over North Otago in the Meads Cup final in Ashburton.
Two early penalties to North Otago's Ed Keohane and a late try closed the gap to six points with five minutes to play in a repeat of the path the ITM Cup Championship followed on Friday night.
But Mid Canterbury held their nerve and ensured they won their first major title since winning the third division championship in 1998.
Former Japan, Chiefs and Bay of Plenty first five-eighths Murray Williams was the star of the afternoon for Mid Canterbury, a 62 metre penalty in the first half the highlight of a perfect afternoon with the tee.
North Otago fullback Keohane played well in general while English hooker TJ Harris competed well up front for the visitors.
The victory is the first of four to go the Canterbury region's way as they look to secure the women's national provincial championship and the ITM Cup Premiership, while South Canterbury have the chance to win the Lochore Cup on Sunday.
Mid Canterbury were looking to amend their failures of 2008 and 2009 when they were beaten in the final in both years. North Otago, meanwhile, were looking to secure their third Meads Cup in six years to add to their Lochore Cup triumph of 2009. The hosts entered the match with an eight-win, one-loss record – their sole loss to their final opponents.
The battle between the two Hanan Shield Districts sides was elevated further with the addition of a monster breeze that handed all advantage to the team with the wind at their back.
A decision to hand Mid Canterbury the wind advantage in the first half paid dividends for North Otago when J'ndre Liebenberg finished a superb backline move to open the scoring.
Weak tackling from the hosts ensured the second five-eighths was able to secure an offload from a superb Lemi Masoe break. He ran 20 metres to score his third try of the year and the first of the final.
Strong defence from North Otago and poor handling from Mid Canterbury captain Jon Dampney ensured the hosts were unable to bounce back immediately.
Instead that honour went to Dwayne Burrows, whose sixth try in 2013 ensured the match was back on level terms within 12 minutes. Playing under advantage the ball bounced into the hands of second five-eighths Pili Manumanuiliwa, who passed to Burrows to ensure the match was back to 7-7.
Williams' 62 metre penalty gave the hosts a three-point lead, an advantage he doubled three minutes later as North Otago stared at a 7-13 deficit with 16 minutes to play in the first half.
Captain Jon Dampney extended his side's lead with the hosts' second try to extend their lead to 13 points before Williams kicked another penalty to hold a 23-7 half-time lead.
Questions around whether a 16-point lead with a hounding wind at their back would be enough were heightened when North Otago reduced the deficit to 10 with 24 minutes to play.
Mid Canterbury looked to have held their nerve with a Williams' fourth penalty but a grandstand finish was ensured when Alex Brown scored in the corner to reduce the gap to 20-26 with five minutes to play.
The favourites held onto possession for the remaining few minutes to send the Ashburton crowd into hysterics on Saturday afternoon.
Mid Canterbury 26 (Dwayne Burrows, Jon Dampney tries; Murray Williams 2 con, 4 pen) North Otago 20 (J'ndre Liebenberg, Alex Brown tries; Ed Keohane 2 con, 2 pen)