An 89th minute try to replacement Cortez Ratima has propelled Waikato to a stirring 16-15 win over Canterbury in Christchurch.
In a match that went about as long as last week’s Bledisloe Cup thriller, his match-winner came after Waikato set up shop inside the hosts’ 22 for the final 10-plus minutes of the match, earning repeated scrum penalties.
Pivot Rivez Reihana, who missed two relatively easy penalty goals earlier in the match, knocked over the crucial conversion to seal the thriller.
The upset win shot them above Tasman and into second in the premiership standings after six rounds, one point behind Auckland (24 points).
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Fifth-placed Canterbury, who outscored the visitors two tries to one, have now dropped three games by a single point this season.
Littered with young players, they will rue the fact their scrum – usually an area of dominance – got tickled up down the stretch and couldn’t close the match out.
They had a chance to do so with a minute left in regulation, after Waikato great Liam Messam had what he thought was the match-winner disallowed due to a knock-on.
However, after Canterbury cleared the ball from their goal line, the visitors worked their way into the 22 on the back of a breakdown penalty and the rest is history.
Messam, 36, turned back the clock in the match, putting in a huge shift after replacing the injured Mitch Jacobson after 20 minutes.
The match had all the ingredients for a typically high-scoring provincial match, yet those who fronted for the Sunday afternoon match at a sun-drenched Orangetheory Stadium were treated to more of a defensive slugfest.
Canterbury loose forwards Tom Christie, Reed Prinsep and Whetukamokamo Douglas, and Waikato’s Adam Thomson, Messam and Luke Jacobson all put in hefty shifts.
Former New Zealand under-20s skipper Christie was particularly impressive at the breakdown, nabbing a series of crucial steals.
Both the red and blacks’ tries were scored by forwards, too, as veteran Luke Romano and rookie tighthead prop Tamaiti Williams touched down either side of the break.
Williams, a 1.93m 20-year-old monster, continues to impress in place of the injured Oli Jager, and it was his 50th minute try which gave his side a handy nine-point buffer.
But, crucially, Reihana slotted a penalty goal with 15 minutes to run to pull his side to within striking distance.
He missed two first half penalties from handy positions, including a third minute strike he pulled badly left of the sticks.
It meant the visitors had just six points to show for 40 minutes of rugby dominated by outstanding defence from both teams.
Even when Waikato lost fullback Beaudein Waaka to the bin for 10 minutes – after a high shot on Canterbury wing Josh McKay – the visitors weren’t exposed.
Sure, veteran Canterbury lock Romano powered over from a driving maul almost immediately after Cam Stone showed Waaka a yellow, but that was the pack’s responsibility.
A Reihana penalty put Waikato up 6-5 after 20 minutes, before Canterbury first five-eighth Fergus Burke slotted one of his own on the half hour mark to complete the early scoring.
Waikato 16 (Cortez Ratima try; Rivez Reihana 3 pen, con) Canterbury 15 (Luke Romano, Tamaiti Williams tries; Fergus Burke pen, con). HT: 6-8
MVP points: Liam Messam 3, Tom Christie 2, Josh McKay 1