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Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Auckland have guaranteed themselves an NPC quarter-final berth.
At Eden Park, Auckland: Auckland 27 (Che Clark, Josh Beehre, Marcel Renata tries; Zarn Sullivan 3 con, 2 pen) Northland 26 (Jordan Trainor, Rob Rush, Tamati Tua, Jordan Olsen tries; Rivez Reihana 2, Daniel Hawkins 1 cons) HT: 17-19.
Yellow card: Liam Hallam-Eames (14th min), Sam Caird (30th min)
The rugby career of Warriors-bound Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will continue into the NPC’s knockout stages but only after Auckland was given a massive fright from Northland, with the match-winning try coming after the full-time siren.
Substitute loosehead prop Marcel Renata crashed in under the posts and Zarn Sullivan knocked over the conversion to break the hearts of a brave Northland side who went down 27-26 after a mighty performance on Friday night.
Trailing by six points with time up, Auckland would have been safely through to the quarter-finals anyway with a losing bonus point, but that would not have inspired confidence heading into a knockout match next week.
If rugby games were won on effort and passion, Northland would have easily got the victory that looked theirs, right up until it wasn’t.
The reality is Auckland’s win at Eden Park guarantees them a national provincial rugby championship quarter-final berth, but against who and where won’t be known until Sunday.
Auckland, who had multiple opportunities to win the match much earlier, were sloppy and disorganised, especially in the second half, as Northland played smart, hard and combative.
The Rugby World Cup clash will likely see Sam Whitelock come off the bench to leave Richie McCaw behind and own outright New Zealand’s appearance record.
Tuivasa-Sheck, who left the field with 10 minutes to play, was electric with ball in hand from fullback but appeared to lack trust in his boot and a turnover in his own 22-metre zone resulted in Northland’s second try.
His replacement, Corey Evans, went within about an inch of producing a match-winner a couple of minutes before Renata’s heroics but a TMO review showed him to be just short.
In a side that fumbled and bumbled their way to victory, blindside flanker Che Clark and halfback Kalani Thomas were clear standouts for Auckland.
With Auckland now safe, Waikato can clinch the eighth and final playoff spot if they beat Canterbury in Hamilton on Saturday.
However, if the red and blacks can score their seventh victory of the season, they will secure second spot on the ladder, plus a home semifinal, and leave Waikato vulnerable to North Harbour (who play Taranaki on Saturday night) and Counties Manukau, who take on Otago on Sunday.
Despite having both locks spend 10 minutes in the sin bin – amongst a 0-9 penalty count – in the opening half, Northland held a 19-17 lead at the break thanks to three entertaining tries to Jordan Trainor, the outstanding Rob Rush and Tamati Tua.
Rush was the best player on the park, but his brother Brady, who gave the last pass to Rob Rush for his try, left the field with a nasty-looking ankle injury late in the match.
Replacement hooker, Jordan Olsen, scored Northland’s only try of the second half.
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