Auckland made it three in a row with a tense 22-18 win over Counties Manukau at Eden Park tonight.
The hard fought victory ensured Auckland achieved their goal of going through the regular season undefeated at home, but they were pushed all the way by a gritty Steelers outfit.
Tonight’s win consolidates Auckland’s position at the top of the table and gives them a four point buffer ahead of second placed Wellington with two games remaining (against North Harbour and Otago).
With Auckland and Counties riding high at the top of their respective conferences and possessing an abundance of backline talent, the stage looked set for a thrilling spectacle of running rugby.
However the persistent rain put a dampener on the match as both teams reverted to wet weather tactics and relied on the grunt of the forwards and the boot of their first five-eighths to accumulate points.
There were early warning signs Counties Manukau had turned up to play as second five Bundee Aki burst straight through the entire Auckland pack from the kick-off and Baden Kerr booted his side deep into Auckland’s territory.
The Steelers first five had a point to prove to the Eden Park faithful in what will be his new home with the Blues next season, and he slotted a penalty kick in the seventh minute to get the Steelers on the board.
But Auckland hit back immediately.
Dave Thomas smashed his opposite winger Tony Pulu into touch from the re-start to give his side an attacking lineout, and as Auckland rumbled forward towards the line, Sean Polwart took a short ball to crash over the whitewash for the only try of the game.
Kerr narrowed the deficit to just a point with a penalty kick, but it really should have been more as Ben Lam was forced to pull off a try saving tackle on Sherwin Stowers close to the line.
The Steelers looked to have the home side rattled as they continued to make half breaks and get on the outside of Auckland’s drift defence.
But they couldn’t find the killer blow and as Auckland continued to infringe, Kerr kept the scoreboard ticking over with penalty kicks.
However Counties also fell foul of the law as Anscombe gave the home side a narrow 16-15 lead at halftime with two penalty kicks.
Referee Nick Briant soon lost patience with the Steelers who refused to recognise the offside line.
Mahonri Schwalger was yellow carded early in the second half for repeated infringements and Anscombe duly obliged to slot a penalty goal, but the home side couldn’t make their one man advantage count.
Indeed it wasn’t until the 62nd minute mark that the scoreboard was troubled again, this time Kerr slotting a penalty kick.
Anscombe soon nullified it with his fifth penalty kick of the night to give the home side a narrow 22-18 lead, and they were forced to hold on deep into extra time to secure the victory.
Auckland now enjoy a nine day turnaround before facing North Harbour in the Battle of the Bridge.
Auckland 22 (Sean Polwart try; Gareth Anscombe con, 5 pens) Counties Manukau 18 (Baden Kerr 6 pens)