Bulls Fall Just Short of Final Despite Win Over Falcons
The Canterbury Bulls surged to a remarkable 38-26 come-from-behind defeat of the Akarana Falcons at AMI Stadium, but it was not enough to snare a place in the NZRL National Premiership final alongside the Counties Manukau Stingrays.
The Stingrays secured the first final berth earlier in the day with an 82-12 demolition of Wellington Orcas in Porirua, leaving the Bulls with the unlikely equation of a victory by 19-plus points over the in-form Falcons to advance to the October 1 decider.
A four-try burst in the first 18 minutes of the second half was the crucial period of the match for the visiting Falcons, turning a 12-point halftime deficit into a 26-16 lead.
But the Bulls finished their campaign on a high by running in four unanswered tries in the space of 10 minutes, briefly reviving hopes of a miracle charge to get the hefty winning margin they required.
While they came up just short of qualifying for their third consecutive final appearance, Canterbury’s third straight win over Akarana was an impressive way to end their first campaign under incoming coach Andrew Auimatagi.
After repelling the Bulls’ initial attacking raids, the Falcons struck first in the 13th through rangy second-rower Taylor Daniels, who cruised through a gaping hole on the left edge for a simple four-pointer. Zae Wallace’s conversion from close range cannoned off the uprights to leave the score at 4-0.
The hosts came close to hitting back immediately, with recalled ex-captain Chris Bamford coming desperately close to scoring after a barnstorming charge, and new skipper James Baxendale – making his first Bulls appearance of 2016 after injury ruled him out of the previous two clashes – stopped just short on the next play.
Canterbury’s reply came in the 20th minute, when the previous week’s two-try hero Phil Nati busted the defence on Akarana’s 40-metre line before finding fullback Nathan Saumalu ranging up in support to score the try. Toi Sepuloni added the extras from handy position for a 6-4 lead.
The momentum had swung dramatically the Bulls’ way – and backrower Nati was again at the forefront as they extended their advantage to six points, crashing over out wide off a slick Tevin Arona pass in the 28th minute.
The red-and-blacks kicked out to a 16-4 lead in the 36th minute via a brilliant piece of dummy-half play from Alani Kakoi, who darted downed the blindside and nudged a grubber in behind the Falcons’ defence for centre Matt Sauni to score.
The Bulls survived a Falcons foray on the cusp of halftime, their finals hopes still very much alive with a 12-point lead as the teams headed for the sheds.
In a hectic start to the second stanza, a Wallace grubber almost created a Falcons try in the first set, before Matt Sauni was held up on the last tackle at the other end a minute later.
Akarana landed a crucial blow from the ensuing restart thanks to the class of former Warriors and Cronulla hooker Tevita Latu. The 35-year-old made a searing break into Bulls territory, before putting fullback Siua Otunuku over next to the posts.
Falcons winger Cortez Taulu crashed over in the corner soon afterwards and Wallace’s sideline conversion levelled the scores at 16-all.
Latu’s influence continued to thwart the Bulls, powering over from dummy-half on the back of a tackle-busting run from interchange forward giant Tevita Satae. Wallace slotted his third goal for an important 22-16 lead.
The Falcons all but booked their place in the final from the ensuing kick-off, swinging the ball from one sideline to the other to send Taulu into space. The winger put in a superb centring grubber for No.7 Wallace – who deliberately tapped the ball forward, but was not pulled up by the referee – to run away for a try and a 10-point advantage.
Their hopes of advancing to the decider apparently over, the Bulls reset their sights on a morale-boosting victory and pulled the score back to 26-22 in the Falcons’ favour when Bamford powered over with 12 minutes remaining.
Matt Sauni showed incredible strength to bust the Falcons’ goal-line defence three minutes later, bagging his second try and locking up the scoreboard. Arona nudged the home side back in front with a coolly-taken conversion.
Canterbury chased a miracle in the latter stages as Matt Sauni completed his hat-trick in the 75th minute, before winger Vinnie Paul produced an extraordinary put-down in the corner (although video replays indicated he had planted the ball on the touch in-goal line) to push the Bulls out to a 38-26 lead.
Arona’s missed conversion attempt after Paul’s try sealed the Bulls’ final fate, however, while a last-minute attacking charge came up just short as the Falcons qualified for the decider by a mere 12 for-and-against points.
“The boys really stuck at it in the second half,” inspirational Bulls skipper Baxendale said post-match.
“We let them get momentum at the start of the second half, but the boys hung tough and came away at the end.”
Baxendale lamented his side’s defensive lapses early in the second half.
“Their middles came over the top of us and we just couldn’t contain them.”
The lock, who had an outstanding game himself, was full of praise for three-try star Matt Sauni.
“Matt’s been devastating for us on that edge. He’s got man-of-the-match for us two games in a row now so he’s been on fire.
“It’s been real frustrating watching the boys for the last two weeks and I was just really excited to get back on the field today and it was really awesome to get the win.
“Unfortunately we’re not off to the final, but we gave it good crack and I’m sure it’ll be an awesome game next week. We’ll be watching with interest.”
Canterbury Bulls 38 (Matt Sauni 3, Nathan Saumalu, Phil Nati, Chris Bamford, Vinnie Paul tries; Tevin Arona 4, Toi Sepuloni goals) defeated Akarana Falcons (Taylor Daniels, Siua Otunuku, Cortez Taulu, Tevita Latu, Zae Wallace tries; Wallace 3 goals) at AMI Stadium, Christchurch, 4pm, Sunday, September 25.
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE