Teammates celebrate Tim Farrell’s match winning try at McLean Park in Napier. Photo / Paul Taylor
By Thomas Airey
Last Friday Hawke’s Bay Magpies assistant coach Sam McNicol rued that his team had used all their ‘get out of jail free’ cards for the season.
But they saved their greatest escape yet for Wednesday night, coming from nowhere to beat Waikato 35-32 at McLean Park in Napier.
Almost nothing worked in the first half for Hawke’s Bay except their defence, which battled to keep the visitors to 22 points before halftime.
Waikato’s dominance over possession (79 per cent) and territory (84 per cent) forced the Magpies to make 149 tackles to their 21.
The most telling statistic was the 55 rucks Waikato formed inside the attacking 22 metre line to zero for Hawke’s Bay.
After the first 20 minutes of one-way traffic resulted in an eight point lead for the visitors, the Magpies almost matched their score with 20 seconds of rare possession.
From a ruck near halfway after a kicking duel, Brad Weber spotted an opportunity on the left wing blindside with Jonah Lowe having come off the right to join centre Nick Grigg and debuting Fijian flyer Paula Balekana all within the 10 metre sideline channel.
Balekana, who was excellent on both attack and defence in his first Magpies game, fended off his defender and all three backs executed perfect draw-and-passes to send Weber over the tryline.
Waikato bounced back immediately with two tries before the break but Hawke’s Bay’s ability to score quickly and from anywhere foreshadowed their fast finish.
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u scored a five-pointer that was almost ruled out for obstruction but the visitors got two more tries in the first 15 minutes after halftime before Hawke’s Bay’s bench started to turn the tide.
Captain Weber was full of praise for them, adding the team was in good hands with Folau Fakatava at halfback over the next few weeks while he heads to Twickenham with the All Blacks before returning ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
“At the back end of games, I guess when we’re chasing we bring the x-factor off the bench and go to a bit more unstructured we look a little bit better, maybe we’re better off doing that from the start,” he said.
Fakatava injected tempo to the game, taking quick tap penalties to great effect three times in his 20 minutes of play.
Substitute fullback Harry Godfrey’s opportunistic individual try came between two for reserve prop Tim Farrell, both set up by Grigg’s replacement Anzelo Tuitavuki who saved his best work until last;
The Tongan winger received the ball on halfway and blitzed past a handful of defenders with a couple right foot steps, offloading for Farrell to give Hawke’s Bay their first lead in the 78th minute.
Once again there is plenty to improve on with the Magpies’ ball handling and lineouts both largely abysmal, while a previously strong scrum faltered in the second half.
But this Hawke’s Bay team keep finding ways to win, starting an NPC season with three straight victories for the first time since 2015.