On top but misfiring
Stephen Donald did it again as the Waikato rugby team beat Manawatu 27-25 after the final siren in Palmerston North Thursday night.
But his converted try at the death and 22-point haul papered over some rather large cracks in the Waikato game that need urgent addressing if the Mooloo Men are to challenge Canterbury in Friday’s final ITM Cup round-robin match in Hamilton, with a home semifinal at stake.
A swag of handling errors and conceded tackle/ruck turnovers, along with some more misfires at lineout time against the second-bottom side in the competition, saw Waikato play without the ball for large chunks of this match at FMG Stadium.
Each time Waikato struck back to level the score or close the gap in the second spell after trailing 10-3 at halftime, the efficient and abrasive Manawatu men, clearly better at retaining possession, immediately answered with a score of their own to pull away.
But the character of the Waikato men shone through in the final 10 minutes as they laid siege on the home team’s goal-line.
In the dying seconds Donald ran hard and diagonally on the open side of a ruck, took the pass and crashed over in the tackle, just managing to ground the ball beside the right-hand goalpost for his second try of the match to tie the scores at 25-25.
The conversion after time was up for a player kicking at 93 per cent (26 out of 28) since his return from injury four weeks ago was a formality and the players, coaches and vocal group of Waikato supporters who had travelled to Palmerston North breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
Waikato head coach Chris Gibbes was quick to acknowledge the flaws in his team’s game, flaws that were all fixable but he was just as quick to praise the strength of character shown at the end that enabled Waikato to escape with four competition points from a match many had expected it to comfortably take five points from.
‘‘I think what was really pleasing from our point of view was that while we didn’t quite get it right tonight, for the last five to 10 minutes we showed what we can do,’’ he said.
Gibbes put the error rate down to his players trying to force passes that weren’t on and being outplayed by Manawatu at the breakdowns where Waikato’s cleanout has not been as efficient as their opposition in recent weeks despite their success.
‘‘We’ve got to have a real good look at that because it’s something we need to get right,’’ he said.
‘‘There are a couple of things there that we’ve got to look at around our hub still so we’re going back to work on Sunday and rectify those issues.’’
While Gibbes felt Waikato’s mistakes had let Manawatu in for their three tries, he said Manawatu were a better side than their lowly place on the points table showed.
‘‘They showed tonight what they can do given possession and we’ve had to work bloody hard. We’re very pleased to get out of that.
‘‘But the reality is that we’ve got to get better at some of those areas of the game. We’ve got to get it right.’’
Donald now has 88 points scored in just four starts after an earlier cameo off the bench and it was his class and that of All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina, along with the fantastic goforward provided by ball-carrying No 8 Alex Bradley and the sharp running of stand-in halfback Malcolm Barnes off a strong scrum, that contributed hugely to the Waikato effort.
TIGHT TUSSLE: Manawatu’s Shannon Paku is wrapped up in a tackle against Waikato.