At Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch: Canterbury 38 (Dominic Gardiner, Manasa Mataele, Tom Christie, Rameka Poihipi tries, penalty try; Alex Harford 4 con, drop goal) Auckland 20 (Salesi Rayasi, Jackson Pugh, Joel Cobb tries; Harry Plummer con, pen). HT: 21-10
Red card: Niko Jones (Auckland)
Yellow cards: Blake Gibson (Auckland), Taufa Funaki (Auckland)
Canterbury just keep on rolling.
The red and blacks hammered Auckland 38-20 in Christchurch on Friday night, handing their rivals’ home quarterfinal hopes a significant blow on a night Niko Jones was sent off for a high shot on George Bridge at the death.
The Auckland flanker was red carded while he was carted off the field, after he launched into Bridge like a scud missile and the pair clashed heads in an ugly incident.
A lengthy stoppage in play while Jones received medical attention only delayed the inevitable – Canterbury’s sixth-straight bonus point win, which all but locked up home field advantage for as long as they’re alive in the competition.
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Young pivot Alex Harford, making just his second start for Canterbury, was outstanding filling in for Fergus Burke (illness), one of the team’s best players heading into the game.
The Christchurch Boys’ High School old boy played a hand in multiple tries, slotted four conversions and drilled a drop goal from about 45 metres.
It was his offload to prop Tamaiti Williams which sparked the break that led to Tom Christie’s 49th minute try, which powered the hosts to a 31-10 lead and essentially ended Auckland’s chances.
To think they’d trailed 10-0 early, and barely touched the ball in the first 25 minutes against an Auckland side which started so very well.
But they let themselves down through poor discipline on a night Blake Gibson and Taufa Funaki were also yellow carded.
Gibson was fortunate he wasn’t red carded by referee Dan Waenga in the 12th minute, when he lowered his knee into Christie’s head.
The loose forward, having taken exception to Christie clinging on to his leg at a ruck, could yet see the act revisited by the foul play committee.
Canterbury failed to cash in while he was off the park, but the same couldn’t be said when Funaki spent 10 minutes in the bin for knocking a ball dead in-goal in the 32nd minute.
The resulting penalty try swung the game Canterbury’s way, as they went on to score two more tries before the break.
Auckland looked broken.
Playing without outstanding flanker Adrian Choat (rested), they’d been all over Canterbury for the first 25 minutes of the match.
They pestered the hosts at the breakdown, disrupted their lineout, made life difficult for them with a smart kicking game, and repeatedly strung long passages of play together.
One of their prolonged raids led to Salesi Rayasi’s third minute try, a beaut setup by Funaki’s nifty kick in behind the red and blacks.
Even when Gibson was yellow carded the visitors kept the heat on, leading to Harry Plummer’s 15th minute penalty and a 10-0 lead.
Canterbury, not helped by a string of mistakes by fullback Chay Fihaki, looked anything like the team that had rattled off five straight bonus point wins.
However, with their scrum giving the Aucklanders a real tickle up, they soon got some possession and territory and put the visitors under the pump.
Following Funaki’s blunder, Dominic Gardiner charged down a Plummer kick and pounced on the loose ball, before Manasa Mataele collected a lovely Harford long ball and touched down for a 21-10 lead at the split.
The big moment
It had to be Funaki’s brain-fade. After all, it led to a penalty try, and Canterbury scored two more tries while he was in the bin.
7/10. A mixed bag. Some quality tries, but too many mistakes and a blowout win meant it never really took off.
The big picture
Canterbury, with eight wins from nine games, are safe as houses with a week remaining in the regular season.
As for Auckland, ahead of their last game against Taranaki at home, they now need to watch their backs with North Harbour, Tasman and Northland eyeing them up.
Take a bow, Alex Harford.
No Fergus Burke might have had some Canterbury fans anxious before the game, only for the slick-passing pivot to put on a clinic in just his second start.