Stingrays Outlast Bulls In Season Opener
Defending NZRL National Premiership champions Counties Manukau Stingrays opened their campaign with a 36-22 win over a gutsy Canterbury Bulls outfit in a rematch of the 2015 final at Mt Smart Stadium.
The Bulls rebounded from a 12-point deficit to level the scores by halftime and grabbed the lead early in the second term, but the Stingrays’ physical, skilful pack and classy playmakers closed out a strong win.
Bulls five-eighth Toi Sepuloni picked up where he left off in the CRL grand final, threading a grubber through that almost produced a try for winger Vinnie Paul, but the visitors were unable to capitalise on quality possession from the resultant line dropout.
Canterbury’s defence failed its first real test after conceding a 40/20, with burly forward Saipani Aiolupo powering over from close range for a 6-0 Stingrays lead after 12 minutes.
The Bulls’ scrambling defence prevented any further damage to the scoreboard, before second-rower Michael Butson and centre Matt Sauni were held up over the try-line on consecutive plays in the 22nd minute.
The Stingrays struck again 11 minutes out from halftime as front-row powerhouse Connor Purcell barged through under the posts from a short dummy-half pass. Centre Raymond Talimale’s second successful conversion pushed the hosts out to 12-0.
But the Bulls hit straight back. Sepuloni’s deft work continued when he turned Erwin Sauni back on the inside, and the centre carved through the Counties defence to score behind the posts. Sepuloni added the extras to cut the deficit to six.
Canterbury completed a remarkable turnaround just before halftime as livewire halfback Tevin Arona snaffled an intercept and raced 65 metres untouched to score his side’s second try. Sepuloni’s angled conversion locked the scores up at 12-all.
The halftime break did nothing to stall the Bulls’ momentum. After another elusive run from Erwin Sauni resulted in a penalty courtesy of a high tackle from Talimale, his equally dangerous brother Matt Sauni scored out wide with a barnstorming run in the third minute of the second stanza.
Losing the lead sparked the Stingrays into immediate action, with their ability to squeeze out offloads presenting an opportunity for left winger Gibson Popoalii to dive over in the corner. Talimale drilled the sideline conversion to edge Counties Manukau back in front, 18-16.
The Stingrays landed a crucial blow in the 58th minute when King Vuniyayawa – man-of-the-match in last year’s final – came off the bench to haunt the Bulls again, scoring a rampaging try to give his side an eight-point buffer.
Veteran forward Corey Lawrie kept the Bulls in the contest with a fine solo try with 11 minutes to play. The former Warrior, relishing a return to Mt Smart Stadium, dummied his way over out wide on the last tackle for a memorable four-pointer, before Arona’s booming sideline conversion pulled the score back to 24-22 in the Stingrays’ favour.
Counties Manukau snuffed the comeback out with six minutes left, however, as George Edwards grabbed a Talimale cross-field kick and reached out to score. Talimale’s fifth successful kick of the afternoon put the result beyond doubt, while Warriors lower-grader Semisi Tyrell iced the win with a highly dubious late try from a Talimale grubber.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. Coming into the game we knew who to watch out for, but (against the) reigning champs it was always going to be a big ask,” stand-in Bulls skipper Kyle Leka (pictured) told Sky TV post-match.
“I think we took it to them first half, but their professionalism came through in the end.
“It’s definitely given us a lot to work for. Coming into the game we had our captain (James Baxendale) drop out on Thursday night.
“Hopefully he’ll be back next week and we can continue to build.”
Leka, Arona, Sepuloni , Lawrie and Erwin and Matt Sauni were the standouts for the beaten Bulls, who host the Wellington Orcas in a must-win clash at AMI Stadium next weekend.
Counties Manukau Stingrays 36 (Saipani Aioulupo, Connor Purcell, Gibson Popoalii, King Vuniyayawa, George Edwards, Semisi Tyrell tries; Raymond Talimale 6 goals) defeated Canterbury Bulls 22 (Erwin Sauni, Tevin Arona, Matt Sauni, Corey Lawrie tries; Toi Sepuloni 3, Arona goals) at Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland at 4pm Sunday, September 11. Halftime: 12-all. Goalkickers: Talimale (Stingrays) 6 from 6; Sepuloni (Bulls) 2 from 3; Arona (Bulls) 1 from 1.
CANTERBURY BULLS: Nathan Saumalu, Dene Grace, Erwin Sauni, Matthew Sauni, Vinnie Paul, Toi Sepuloni, Tevin Arona, Kyle Leka, Corey Lawrie, Alex Todd, Michael Butson, Phil Nati, Brad Austin. Interchange: Alani Kakoi, Patella Tou, Jiordan Fidow-Kele, Danny Moevao. Coach: Andrew Auimatagi.
COUNTIES MANUKAU STINGRAYS: H. Brown, G. Popoalii, R. Talimalie, P. Latu, S. Tyrell, D. Radich, C. Hotene, U. Aiolupo, J. Friend, C. Purcell, T. Vanisi, S. Feao, R. Charlie. Interchange: G. Edwards, S. Aiolupo, K. Vuniyayawa, J. Dowie. Coach: Rod Ratu.
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE