The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls have kicked off their 2018 NZRL National Premiership campaign with an outstanding win, edging out Counties Manukau Stingrays 20-18 at Mount Smart Stadium.

Canterbury led by two points at halftime but needed a late try from barnstorming winger Ben Ilalio and an ice-cool conversion from captain James Baxendale to snatch a vital result and take a huge step towards the October 6 final.

The Rockcote Bulls got off to a flying start, marching downfield on the back of an opening-minute penalty before 19-year-old halfback debutant Brad Campbell fired a beautiful long ball out for centre Will Tafua, who used his big frame to power over out wide.

Baxendale drilled a booming conversion from the sideline for 6-0.

The Stingrays wasted little time replying, with burly prop Connor Purcell muscling over form close-range, but the Rockcote Bulls regained the lead through a Dene Grace try in the 11th minute, the Hornby centre slicing through off a deft pass from wily Linwood five-eighth Toi Sepuloni.

The Bulls celebrate Dene Grace’s first-half try.

Baxendale edged his side out to 14-6 with an 18th-minute penalty as Canterbury continued to dominate territory on the back of excellent go-forward and the precise kicking of Campbell and Sepuloni.

Counties Manukau struck back through lightning fullback Geronimo Doyle and the southerners began to have trouble with their opponents’ second-phase play.

Both sides tightened up their defence at the back-end of the half and the scoreline remained an evenly-poised 14-12 in favour of the Rockcote Bulls at the break.

Canterbury had several attacking opportunities on the Counties line early in the second half but failed to cash in. The Stingrays’ poor handling ensured the Rockcote Bulls were put under little pressure, however.

But it was the Stingrays who broke the impasse in the 63rd minute and took the lead for the first time in the match. Rangy winger Edward Kosi flew high to catch a high attacking kick and dive over for a spectacular try.

Canterbury regroup after conceding the lead for the first time with 16 minutes left.

Time appeared to be running out on Canterbury as Counties found their rhythm, but Stingrays winger George Edwards’ fumble of a regulation catch allowed Rockcote Bulls opposite Ilalio to streak away for the leveller against the run of play.

Baxendale calmly slotted the angled conversion to put the Rockcote Bulls in front 20-18 with six minutes left.

Bulls winger Ben Ilalio runs away for the match-winning try.

Canterbury had a couple of chances to seal the result but came up just short, before repelling a late Counties raid to clinch a momentous first-up victory.

There were outstanding contributors across the park, but none were better for the Rockcote Bulls than feisty No.7 Campbell, whose busy running game, support play and grass-cutting defence proved a thorn in the Stingrays’ side all afternoon.

Versatile tyro Cyrus Timo-Latu also had a blinder off the bench for the victors.

Canterbury halfback Brad Campbell, 19, takes a well-earned drink during an outstanding debut display.

The Rockcote Bulls play their remaining round-robin games against Waikato (September 22) and Akarana (September 29) at Christchurch’s Rugby League Park, giving them a handy advantage in their bid for a spot in the NZRL Premiership final.

NZRL NATIONAL PREMIERSHIP ROUND 1 – Rockcote Canterbury Bulls 20 (Will Tafua, Dene Grace, Ben Ilalio tries; James Baxendale 4 goals) defeated Counties Manukau Stingrays 18 (Connor Purcell, Geronimo Doyle, Edward Kosi tries; Drew Radich 3 goals) at Mount Smart Stadium, 2pm, Sunday, September 16.

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