OPINION: Handling adversity key to Mako victory
By Peter Jones [Marlborough Weekly]
Mako fans were reminded of what NPC play-off rugby is all about at Lansdowne Park this afternoon.
And it wasn’t pretty. The Mitre 10 Cup premiership semifinal, won 18-9 by Tasman, turned into a war of attrition, ultimately decided by a couple of moments of brilliance by the home side.
Auckland came to Blenheim stung by a 40-0 reversal in round-robin play, with a plan to negate Tasman’s traditional strengths and it nearly worked.
For three quarters of the match they held onto possession, slowed down any ball Tasman managed to get their hands on and pressurised the home side into errors of judgement and discipline.
However, the one thing the defending champs couldn’t do was forge a decent lead, thus putting the home side under scoreboard pressure.
This was due to the Tasman defence, such a part of their 11-11 record so far. Auckland threw everything at them, refusing to kick the ball away and attacking both in close and out wide, but the red and blue wall stood strong.
A turning point came on the 60 minute mark. With the scores tied 6-6 it seemed Auckland had scored a rather fortuitous try on the left wing only for it to be ruled out by a foot in touch.
Having dodged a bullet, Tasman decided to fire a couple of their own. Clean breaks by replacements Fetuli Paea and Hugh Roach created the lightning-fast rucked ball they so desired and set up tries for Quinten Strange and Alex Nankivell.
The ability to handle adversity is crucial to any teams with title aspirations and the Mako had to dig deeper than they have had to at any stage this season to get the job done today.
A lack of serious injuries has been a feature of the Mako campaign this year, but the rugby gods were definitely not smiling today. Losing workhorse loose forward Ethan Blackadder with a dislocated shoulder in the 12th minute, then his replacement Jordan Taufua eight minutes later after a head knock were massive psychological blows which the team took some time to adjust to.
Co-head coach Andrew Goodman admitted as much. “When you lose two key leaders like that in quick succession it is always going to have an impact on the game.”
Having to use bench players Taufua, and his replacement Te Ariwaru Cirikidaveta, who had an outstanding game, so early in the piece also affected Tasman’s plans for later in the match, but Goodman said the reserves certainly did their job.
“One of our strengths has been being able to bring those guys on later in the game when teams are starting to tire, but I thought our ‘Sparkies’ still did an awesome job today. That group of four or five that came on with about 20 to go really changed the game.”
Goodman said they expected Auckland to come at them with plans to slow their ball down and exert pressure at the breakdown.
“That’s where they have had success against us in the past. We probably didn’t adapt quickly enough at the start but once we got a bit more decisive with our carries and the cleaners did their job we managed to get some quick ball and found some holes.”
Goodman said his side took a lot of confidence from the fact Auckland threw plenty at them in the first half, yet trailed 3-6, while enjoying an overwhelming advantage in territory and possession.
“It felt like we spent most of the first half on defence , but it was about keeping that belief … knowing that if we could get some ball and string some phases together we would be able to put some pressure back on them.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Roared on by 6000 or so increasingly-nervous fans, the Mako booked a place in the 2019 premiership decider with a late, irresistible surge.
In modern rugby idiom, there is definitely “plenty to work on” before they front up in Nelson next weekend.
The medical staff will also be kept busy during the week, but two things have allowed this Mako side to stand apart this season, their strength in depth and self-belief.
Both will be fully tested at Trafalgar Park in seven days’ time.