At Bell Park, Auckland: Waikato 27 (Aki Tuivailala 10’, Xavier Roe 30’, 37, 66’ tries, Tepaea Cook-Savage 2 con, drop goal) Auckland 12 (Vaiolini Ekusai 24’, Zarn Sullivan 69’ tries, Sullivan con). HT: 17-5
Unwanted All Blacks forward Samipeni Finau helped Waikato claim an upset win over Auckland in his first appearance of the National Provincial Championship season.
The 24-year-old returned to provincial rugby duties on Saturday afternoon after narrowly missing out on a place in the All Blacks’ World Cup squad and again being overlooked for Tasman’s Ethan Blackadder when Ian Foster called in additional loose forward cover.
Finau’s omission would have been hard to take after a breakout year, but it has certainly been Waikato’s gain.
The Chiefs standout got through a mountain of work a blindside flanker in a bruising 80-minute performance as the Mooloos stunned Auckland 27-12 at Bell Park to claim just their third win of the NPC season, keeping Ross Filipo’s injury-ravaged team in contention for the quarterfinals with two rounds remaining.
Halfback Xavier Roe was the star of the show, bagging a hat-trick of tries including two inside the space of just seven first-half minutes, but Finau played his part with a series of powerful runs and a cool hand in the lead-up to one of the No. 9’s tries.
Needing a win to keep themselves in the hunt for a top-eight finish, 18-year-old winger Aki Tuivailala gave Waikato the perfect start when he finished off an overlap and ran through untouched after just 10 minutes.
Auckland drew level 14 minutes later when No. 8 Vaiolini Ekusai produced a spectacular superman dive in the left corner, but Waikato pulled away when Roe scored two tries in quick succession right before halftime.
After a scoreless start to the second-half, first-five Tepaea Cook-Savage extended Waikato’s advantage when he slotted a drop goal to keep the points ticking over.
The returning Finau had a hand in Roe’s third try, scored in the 66th minute, when he popped a short ball for centre Tana Tuhakaraina to break through the defensive line and offload to Roe, who was in support.
Auckland No. 10 Zarn Sullivan crossed with 11 minutes remaining but a comeback never materialised as Waikato hung on for a rare win to move up to eighth on the NPC table, while denting Auckland’s hopes of finishing the regular season in top spot in the process.
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