Shield goes south for the sum­mer

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

If only the Ran­furly Shield was up for grabs in play­off matches.

Wouldn’t that add some ex­tra sea­son­ing to next week’s Mitre 10 Cup cham­pi­onship semi­fi­nal be­tween Otago and Hawke’s Bay in Dunedin?

No doubt Otago fans are over­joyed there is no chance of a re­peat of 2013, when their side raided the Log o’ Wood from Waikato, only for the Mag­pies to roll into Forsyth Barr Sta­dium and snatch it nine days later.

Hav­ing kicked off their sixth shield ten­ure with a thrilling 23-19 win against Waikato on Satur­day, it will be safely stowed away at Otago Rugby’s head­quar­ters in North Dunedin for the sum­mer.

That’s right, for­get nine short days, it will be more like nine months be­fore the trea­sured provin­cial prize goes on the line.

That said, the blue-and-golds don’t have long to cel­e­brate just their sec­ond shield tri­umph in the past 61 years.

Pro­mo­tion to the premier­ship sec­tion of the NPC was their pri­mary ob­jec­tive head­ing into the sea­son, and they’ve done enough to se­cure a home sud­den-death match un­der the roof.

Hawke’s Bay have al­ready top­pled Otago in Dunedin this year (31-25 in round two), but have lost a bunch of play­ers, in­clud­ing hooker Ash Dixon, to in­jury since then.

They’re com­ing off a 29-0 de­feat to Tas­man, who put on wetweather clinic in Nel­son on Thurs­day night, a re­sult which opened the door for Otago to leapfrog them into sec­ond place on the lad­der.

The win­ner of their semi­fi­nal will play the win­ner of the semi be­tween Waikato and North­land, 38-35 losers to Bay of Plenty on Satur­day, in the pro­mo­tion match.

De­spite hav­ing a six-match win­ning streak snapped by Otago, Waikato fin­ished as the top seed in the bot­tom tier of the com­pe­ti­tion, giv­ing them host­ing rights as long as they’re alive in the com­pe­ti­tion.

You get the feel­ing the Mooloos, clearly dis­traught af­ter cough­ing up the shield to Otago, would like noth­ing more than an­other shot at them in front of their home fans.

As for the premier­ship sec­tion, the four semi­fi­nal­ists – Tas­man, Auck­land, Can­ter­bury and Welling­ton – have been found.

Fresh from ham­mer­ing South­land 56-8 on Wed­nes­day, Auck­land only needed two com­pe­ti­tion points to clinch the top seed, mean­ing they will host the Lions, who booted Taranaki into the cham­pi­onship sec­tion next year, cour­tesy of a 34-10 de­mo­li­tion job in New Plymouth on Fri­day night.

That would make for a tasty semi­fi­nal be­tween sec­ond-seed Tas­man and reign­ing cham­pi­ons Can­ter­bury in Nel­son.

Can­ter­bury, win­ners of nine of the past 10 NPC ti­tles, beat the Mako in Christchurch to seal the 2016 and 2017 ti­tles, al­though Tas­man beat them 25-17 in Blen­heim in the open­ing round of this year’s com­pe­ti­tion.

The red-and-blacks were un­con­vinc­ing 19-14 win­ners against Coun­ties Manukau in Pukekohe on Satur­day night, their first of eight wins with­out a bonus point.

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