New Zealand

Shaun Stevenson secures clutch play to help North Harbour to 27-24 over Otago

North Harbour fullback Shaun Stevenson was dangerous every time he got near the ball.

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

North Harbour fullback Shaun Stevenson was dangerous every time he got near the ball.

At North Harbour Stadium, Auckland: North Harbour 27 (Sofai Maka 2, Moses Leo tries; Oscar Koller 1, Bryn Gatland 2 cons, Koller 2 pen) Otago 24 (Fabian Holland, Josh Whaanga, John Tapueluelu, Jona Nareki tries; Finn Hurley 2 con) HT: 17-10.

Shaun Stevenson, the man many people call the unluckiest player not to be in France at the Rugby World Cup with the All Blacks, has inspired North Harbour to their second victory of the season.

The Harbour fullback set up two tries – at the beginning and end – of Wednesday night’s 27–24 victory over Otago to help his side to a much-needed victory.

Stevenson’s performance will also send a gentle reminder to Ian Foster that he’s ready and waiting if there is any injury amongst the All Blacks outside backs.

With Otago seemingly about to hold for a well-earned victory after dominating much of the match on Wednesday night, Stevenson’s brilliance and awareness then clinched the match-winner for Harbour when he pinched the ball from an Otago ruck inside their danger zone, put on some footwork, then produced an offload that put centre Moses Leo in to score.

The try was originally disallowed but referee Michael Winter but he referred it to the TMO and it came back a try and gave Harbour the lead for the first time in the match.

For grizzly old props from a bygone Otago era, the first half must have brought back some bruising yet beautiful memories as Otago blew North Harbour off the park at scrum time.

Otago lock Fabian Holland was at the heart of most things good from blue and golds pack.

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Otago lock Fabian Holland was at the heart of most things good from blue and golds pack.

The power pack scrum and bruising defence of Otago early was a throwback to the glory years of national provincial championship rugby when the same two teams put on multiple classics in the 1990s.

Such was the dominance of Otago at scrum time, Harbour tight head prop Sione Mafileo was introduced into the game before half-time.

Hugely promising Otago lock Fabian Holland, who was outstanding all night long with turnovers, brutal defence and lending his weight to that dominant scrum, helped himself to the opening points of the match when he plucked the ball out of ruck and went straight through the middle to score next to the posts.

That lead was undone when Stevenson showed his class with a clean line break and then used his patience to find Sofai Maka with a lengthy and inch-perfect pass.

Otago’s scrum was dominant early and it got them out of trouble with a scrum penalty and just a few short minutes later, down the other end, they blew Harbour off the ball again to win one against the feed and Ajay Faleafaga’s cross kick took an ugly bounce for Harbour but a pretty one for Josh Whaanga.

John Tapueluelu started the season with North Harbour but now on loan to Otago, he finished off the blue and golds third try after a Holland turnover and some hefty work from the rest of the forward pack in contact – both with defensively and with ball in hand.

After a Harbour penalty, Jona Nareki then latched onto a Stevenson mistake to scorch away and score Otago’s fourth try.

Maka scored a second to hit straight back for Harbour and replacement Bryn Gatland’s sideline conversion closed the lead to four.

Stevenson then put Leo in to seal the deal for North Harbour despite the home side only scoring three tries to Otago’s four.

New Zealand under-20 representative Will Stodart was on debut for Otago in the No. 6 jersey but brought the aggression of a grizzled veteran before leaving the field late in the match with an injury concern.

The big moment

When North Harbour needed something special after turning the ball over inside Otago’s 22-metre zone, the electric Stevenson made it happen and executed the match-winning play with silky skill.

Match rating

7.5/10. High-quality scrummaging from Otago, some classy touches out wide and brutal defence made for an encounter that has something for everything, especially the tight five purists and the result went down to the wire. However, Otago fans could be forgiven for wondering who this one got away.

MVP

Hard to go past Stevenson, the Harbour captain, but nobody could disagree with an argument to give the MVP to Holland who had a stellar match.

The big picture

Fresh from just their second victory of the season, North Harbour hit the road to Palmerston North to take on the improving Manawatū on Sunday. On the same day, Otago host North Island under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium as they continue to search for their second win of the year.

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