Sportal.co.nz 31.Aug.2013Getty Images
North Harbour flanker's Zac Judge couldn't prevent Northland from succumbing to a thrilling 33-33 draw at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday evening.
Judge's tackle on Rene Ranger in the 65th minute condemned North Harbour to playing with 14 men. If playing with an extra man was supposed to be an advantage, Northland weren't interested. Captain Ranger was sinbinned no less than two minutes later for a professional foul for making a mess at the breakdown.
It made for an exciting final 13 minutes of regular – and three minutes of injury time. Harbour scored 13 points in five minutes as Northland missed their most potent attacking weapon for 10 minutes. It continued the visitors' woeful reputation as being one of the worst finishing teams in the competition, particularly in the final quarter of a match.
Ranger returned for the final two minutes of the match but couldn't help his side over the line and with the final score reading 33-33, Northland were left to pack into their team bus, head up State Highway One and ponder what could have been.
For North Harbour, the draw was a bittersweet given their dominant start to the match. Despite a promising front row and a dominant lineout, the hosts were unable to convert opportunities into points as they secured three competition points to move into fifth in the Championship.
Northland, meanwhile, also take three competition points courtesy of their four tries to move up ahead of Hawke's Bay into third in the Championship.
Both sides' ill discipline threatened to sour what had been a relatively conservative encounter. Instead the two cards proved a catalyst for the best period of the match. Unpredictable, desperate and unorthodox attacking rugby took over as Harbour did what fans thought unthinkabkle – overcoming an 8-20 half-time deficit.
Harbour's fourth game in 14 days was a test of how they would adapt to being handed a gruelling schedule early on. Instead it was Liam Barry's men who made Northland tire early on.
Known for their defensive resolve, North Harbour illustrated their attacking capabilities with a sound, patient and composed opening half against their northern rivals.
The hosts were rewarded with their perseverance on attack with a try after 16 phases to flanker Jordan Manihera. His maiden ITM Cup try was a sound reminder from North Harbour to other teams that they are more than just a defensive outfit.
Northland's potent backline, however, proved to be the difference as Caucaunibuca in particular sparkled as the sun set at North Harbour Stadium. Fullback Whiria Meltzer's maiden try, bookended by a brace to Fijian flyer Rupeni Caucaunibuca, gave the visitors a 20-8 half-time lead.
With just a try being the difference in the last six game between the two teams - two of the last three matches have been decided by a point - every opportunity to score was vital for either side.
They extended that lead to 20-8 at half-time before Harbour came storming back with tries to Greg Pleasants-Tate and captain James Parsons in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
Harbour first-five Cody Rei's disappointing display saw him benched after just 55 minutes, allowing Jon Elrick a chance to prove his worth.
He did everything right to kick two penalties and a conversion to ensure North Harbour secured a share of the points to the delight of their fans.
Judge's red card came 10 minutes after Northland looked to have secured the match with their fourth try to Dan Pryor - his fifth ITM Cup try.
But Nafi Tuitavake's late try and Elrick's conversion ensured it was all square at North Harbour Stadium.
Needless to say, Northland's trip back to Whangarei will be a particularly quiet trip home for Ranger.
North Harbour 33 (Nafi Tuitavake, Greg Pleasants-Tate, James Parsons, Jordan Manihera tries; Cody Rei con, pen, Jon Elrick con, 2 pen) Northland 33 (Rupeni Caucaunibuca 2, Dan Pryor, Whiria Meltzer tries; Ben Seymour 2 con, 3 pen)