Steelers dominate in Albany
Counties-Manukau bounced back from their first defeat of the season to dominate North Harbour 27-15 at North Harbour Stadium on Tuesday night.
Despite landing the first blow, the North Harbour pack struggled to find an edge over their South Auckland counterparts and after they leaked their first try at the end of the first quarter, Counties added two more to lead 19-8 at the break.
After a first half, where they committed eight handling errors, the visitors failed to address their profligate ways which allowed an improved North Harbour to reduce the deficit with a try to centre Corey Aporo.
However, the superior Steelers pack did enough to repel their spirited opponents to hold on for a gutsy win, adding a fourth try to secure a bonus point in the process.
North Harbour was bolstered by the return of No.8 Jim Tuivaiti while their midfield stocks took a blow with the absence of Blues centre Francis Saili. And things got worse when five-eighth Michael Hobbs was forced to the sideline early with a sprained ankle.
The men from Pukekohe enjoyed a full-strength line-up, but lost inspirational captain DJ Forbes to a nasty eye injury in the opening quarter of play.
As the rain ceased shortly before kick-off, conditions were always going to be tough for two teams which had employed an expansive style of play in the opening rounds of the competition, and subsequently, both were guilty of committing a number of unforced errors.
The set piece was a strong feature early, an area where Counties-Manukau looked the more dominant pack - with a forceful scrum and an early lineout steal.
Referee Glen Jackson made his presence felt early and after Counties' Bayden Kerr missed his first opportunity at points, the home side took an early lead through the boot of Bryn Hall in the eighth minute.
Counties were given numerous opportunities in attacking position to register a timely reply, but a string of handling errors denied them initially.
But when the home side failed to clear their 'red zone' from a scrum, the Counties pack embarked on a series of pick-and-go's which ended with prop Simon Lemalu crossing the chalk for his second try of the season.
Ten minutes later the try-scoring front-rower orchestrated another scoring play when he drew the defence then unleashed Frank Halai into space, who found a supporting Tim Nanai-Williams for their second of the night.
With their first significant share of the possession, North Harbour did not waste the opportunity. A lengthy burst from David Raikuna sparked a raid which centre Corey Aporo finished when he was allowed to stroll through the absent ruck defence for a crucial try.
Just as Liam Barry's men began to think about how they might continue their momentum in the second spell, Counties winger Frank Halai sneaked over from a quick tap from five metres out to earn his side a healthy 11-point lead at half-time.
After the break North Harbour looked a much more composed side and after missing out on their first opportunity to score, Aporo struck again with his second of the night.
There wasn't anything pretty about the visitors' next strike, but it was effectively the straw that broke the camel's back when substitute prop Maka Tatafu powered his 118kg frame over from close range to secure the bonus point win.
North Harbour 15 (Aporo 2 tries, Semple con, Hall pen)
Counties-Manukau 27 (Lemalu, Nanai-Williams, Halai, Tatafu tries, Kerr 2 con, Kerr pen)