Waikato has survived a late comeback by Southland to win 30-25 in dramatic fashion at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton tonight.
The Mooloos can thank Damian McKenzie for his strongest showing yet, maintaining a perfect kicking record and slotting a crucial penalty in the dying seconds to take the Waikato lead out to beyond a penalty.
Waikato ran in three tries, including the second in a week for co-captain Brad Weber, but Southland, to their credit, never gave up and came racing back in the last quarter to nearly snatch victory.
The win is crucial for Waikato and a good bounce back from a disappointing performance last week. Waikato now move up in the ITM Cup Premiership points table.
Waikato tried to play the territory game early in the wet conditions before Elliot Dixon was penalised for tackling Weber too early, but the Stags were let off the hook when the Waikato lineout went awry.
Southland couldn’t clear, and after a second penalty, Waikato opted to keep on the attack with a scrum.
Some good defense kept the Mooloos out as Southland made their tackles, but a third penalty saw Damian McKenzie put the home side up by three.
Jacob Skeen took a knock as Southland immediately went on the attack; the lock was replaced by David Morgan and Skeen went down the tunnel for a concussion test.
Southland had a man unmarked with a clear run to the corner, but Tim Boys couldn’t catch the pass and the try went begging.
Awarded a penalty; Southland drew even thanks to the boot of Lima Sopoaga.
McKenzie sparked an attack from deep in his own half when Southland kicked away possession. The 20-year old cut through the midfield and passed the ball off to James Tucker in support. Tucker was cut down near the try line, ruining what was nearly Waikato’s second runaway try in a week.
McKenzie landed his second penalty of the night to nudge Waikato in front 6-3, and became the leading points scorer in ITM Cup this season so far.
With an advantage and hot on attack, Weber put up a hopeful up and under but weighted the kick perfectly. Sloppy hands from the Southland defender saw the ball come free, and Declan O’Donnell pounced to score the try.
McKenzie converted; Waikato led 13-3.
The Stags were awarded a penalty, and Sopoaga had the distance from halfway to bring Southland closer.
Waikato held a small lead 13-6 at halftime.
The Mooloo men went on the attack as play resumed, pushing downfield with multiple phases before a handling error out wide ended the move. Waikato remained in Southland territory, and Weber took advantage of broken play, penetrating the gap tiny gap and breaking free. Weber was no match for the defense and raced away for the try.
Following McKenzie’s conversion, Waikato led 20-6.
Southland tried to answer back but coughed up possession deep in Waikato’s half. Opting not to take a kick at goal, Southland took play into the corner with an attacking lineout. A handling error ruined the set play, but Waikato being offside handed Southland another penalty.
The Stags secured the ball from the scrum and Lima Sopoaga kicked into the corner, the Waikato defenders weren’t back enough, the ball bounced perfectly into the hands of Keanu Kahukura for the try.
Sopoaga failed to convert, but the Stags were within nine points in Hamilton, 20-11 with a quarter of the game to play.
Waikato answered right back with a try of their own, Dylan Collier scoring his third try in ITM Cup rugby, and Waikato’s third of the night. McKenzie converted again; Waikato led 27-11.
Southland knocked the ball on inside their own half and began to lose their structure as the pressure mounted.
With time ticking away; the Southland forward pushed toward the try line and powered over, but replays couldn’t show clear evidence of a grounding by Dillan Halaholo, however the try was awarded.
Sopoaga converted to make the score 27-18.
Waikato surged after Southland failed to secure the kick off, and in the corner it looked as if Tyrone Te Ruruku had scored, but the referee consulted the TMO for further clarification. Replays showed the replacement hooker was short but there was a question of momentum.
The try wasn’t awarded, and Southland had a penalty as
After four years away from New Zealand Rugby since his famous kick in the 2011 RWC final, Stephen Donald jogged onto the field to a loud applause by the hearty souls at the stadium on a cold and wet night.
Southland were suddenly full of life, and old mistakes on defense from the previous game began to haunt Waikato. Southland capitalised quickly, Kieran Moffat touching down in the corner to bring the score closer again.
Sopoaga converted, and the game was on in Hamilton; 27-25 with five minutes remaining.
Southland were hot on attack, and Waikato were falling off tackles as the visitors charged downfield looking destined to score. Some brilliant work at the breakdown earned Waikato a penalty, and McKenzie cleared Waikato’s line to ease the pressure and keep possession.
Southland were penalised with a minute to play, and Weber gave the ball to McKenzie to kick for goal.
McKenzie didn’t miss, maintaining a perfect record to give Waikato a crucial buffer of five points.
The final hooter sounded as Sopoaga kicked off, and Waikato secured possession to allow Weber to bang the ball away into touch and seal victory for the Mooloos 30-25 at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton.
Waikato will face Taranaki next Friday in New Plymouth.