Waikato fall short of upset
It was one heck of a conspicuous return to the top flight of domestic rugby league, but Waikato ended up falling just short of causing a massive upset in the opening round of the national premiership on Sunday.
Having won promotion to the top-four premiership division after featuring in the championship section in the first year of the restructured local competition in 2016, Waikato looked like causing a boilover against defending champions the Akarana Falcons in Hamilton, before eventually falling to a 36-28 defeat at FMG Stadium Waikato.
Morgan Kutia’s team had everyone stunned when leading 22-6 late in the first half, but in the end the strength of the Auckland side shone through, as they piled on the points in the second half against a tiring Waikato team, who can nonetheless take plenty of confidence from their gutsy showing.
Guilty of a couple of little errors early, Waikato were made to play from behind when Akarana opened the scoring in the 11th minute, as winger Corey Seator kicked for fiveeighth Jordan Tuarae, to score alongside the posts.
But, after settling into their rhythm, the home side then ripped into their work in a big way, putting on four tries in a splendid 20 minutes.
On the quarter-hour mark second-rower Tamainu Huirama latched onto a little grubber from hooker Malcolme Noda, before captain Aaron Jolley began to stamp his class all over the contest from fullback.
With a scorching break up the middle from inside his own half, Jolley found support from Noda, who then popped a ball back to the skipper to finish the 65-metre effort which put Waikato in front.
And just a few minutes later the hosts scored another stunner, with five-eighth Hayden Karena forcing a dropout with a good chip kick, then going over on the resulting set, receiving the ball from Noda and providing a superb no-look inside pass to Jolley, who then gave it back by way of a cool back-flick.
With Noda forcing a repeat set with a grubber, and Waikato helped upfield on several occasions through penalties from referee Shane Rehm, they then kicked out to a stunning 16-point lead five minutes before halftime as Noda sent a wellplaced ball to Huirama, who showed nice footwork at the line and barged under the bar.
Akarana nabbed one back as fullback Polima Siaki sliced through, making it 22-10 at the break, but Waikato cancelled that out less than two minutes into the second stanza, with more Jolley magic, as he produced a strip, then soon after went on a run to the line and reached out.
However, from 28-10, Waikato’s advantage quickly got mown down, as Akarana finally found their way with their hardrunning big men, and the hosts fell off plenty of tackles.
Interchange hooker Zac Tippins nabbed a double in the space of four minutes, both times too strong and too clever out of dummy half.
Then it was centre Francis Leger and second rower Fatani Manukia on the right edge who took turns in setting one another up, with Leger grabbing an offload and going through some soft defence on the hourmark, then his sneaky inside ball shortside play putting Manukia across in the 68th minute to give the Falcons the lead.
There was still time for Waikato, but they just had no second-half possession, field position or energy to stymie the Akarana onslaught, and the result was sealed in the 76th minute when the hosts made a mistake at the back of a scrum near their own line, and big Salafuauli Falelua-Malio spun his way over.
Waikato will have the chance to build on their creditable firstup effort when they again play at FMG Stadium Waikato next Sunday, against the Canterbury Bulls, who earlier crashed to a mistakes-marred 28-22 loss to Counties Manukau despite a spirited second half comeback in Christchurch.