North Otago secured a Meads Cup final against Mid Canterbury in a 48-34 thriller against Wairarapa Bush at the Whitestone Contracting Stadium on Saturday.
Ed Keohane opened the scoring inside five minutes before lock Sale Pi’i’s elusive run culminated in the first try of the day under the posts to make Keohane’s conversion a simple affair.
North Otago were menacing, punishing the visitor’s rustiness as Matt Duff powered through the waning green and red defence, which Keohane easily converted for a 17-0 advantage.
Wairarapa attempted to rally and found some joy with a try from openside flanker Johan Van Vliet. The skipper was a doubt for the tie but offered his side a lifeline.
The Old Golds didn’t let up as J’ndre Liebenberg joined the first half try-fest as Keohane added the extras for 24-7.
The homeside heaped more pressure on Wairarapa with halfback Robbie Smith touching down on the stroke of half time.
The away side returned with urgency in the second period as centre Byron Karaitiana crossed the line. Glen Walters was unable to capitalise on what turned into a dismal performance from the boot for the first five-eighth.
Despite the upped intensity, Wairarapa were unable to thwart the resilient and committed Golds’ attack as Ratu Vaituinaruku hit back for 38-19.
Keohane was as consistent as ever from the boot, slotting his second penalty of the afternoon.
Wairarapa refused to lay down, with fullback Hayton Cameron skipping over the line. Walters’ radar was off again, failing to hit the conversion.
The ambience turned from tense to jovial as the North Otago faithful sensed a final spot was secured.
Winger Koniferedi Simeli joined the party 15 minutes from time to put the clash out of reach. Mark Rutene’s side fought to the last as Karaitiana touched down for his second try, only for Walters to miss his conversion before Richard Puddy crossed the line, but proved too little to late.
Coach Mike Mullins praised his players’ first half performance and now has his sights firmly set on Saturday’s final with Mid Canterbury. Mullins is expecting a close encounter after edging out the green and yellows 19-18 in a gritty affair earlier in the campaign.
“It was a good first half, which turned out to be the difference, with Wairarapa scoring 22 points in the second half,” he said.
“All teams go through periods of fatigue, which was to be expected given the amount of running and the warmer weather affecting both teams. Anything can happen in 80 minutes of rugby. Sometimes it’s the bounce of the ball, which generally went our way yesterday.
“Round four was a tough game (against Mid Canterbury), which we defended well at the death to get a one point win.
“They (Mid Canterbury) were with out their main goal kicker that day, which could have been the difference. We are waiting on two players with injury. Chris Talanoa and Palenapa Mafi will hopefully be fit for selection this week.”
Mid Canterbury survived a difficult first half in which they trailed West Coast 7-13 to take the opposite semi-final 28-25 following a last minute try, while South Canterbury will host Buller in the Lochore Cup final after downing Thames Valley and Wanganui respectively.
North Otago 48 (Sale Pi’i, Matt Duff, J’ndre Liebenberg, Rob Smith, Ratu Vaituinaruku, Simeli Knoiferedi tries; Ed Keohane 6 con, 2 pen) Wairarapa Bush 34 (Richard Puddy 2, Byron Karaitiana 2, Johan van Vliet, Ben Pereria tries; Glenn Walters 2 con). HT: 31-12