The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls’ NZRL National Premiership final hopes hang by a thread after a 34-14 defeat to Akarana Falcons at Rugby League Park in Christchurch.

Needing to win, or lose by less than 12 points, to guarantee a place in next Saturday’s decider, the Rockcote Bulls made their task difficult by conceding three tries in the opening 18 minutes.

The Falcons, meanwhile, are the first side into the final with two wins and a +46 points differential, with the Rockcote Bulls – who won their first two games – slipping to +28.

If Counties Manukau Stingrays beat struggling Waikato by more than 16 points in Hamilton tomorrow, they will secure a place in an all-Auckland decider.

Early errors and penalties stunted the Rockcote Bulls’ early progress and the Falcons landed on the scoreboard first in the ninth minute through fullback Polima Siaki.

Akarana doubled their lead to 8-0 in the first set after the restart, an awkward kick getting away from Canterbury fullback Tauvale Tauvale and allowing Dylan Tavita to skip through for the try. But Tauvale could consider himself unlucky after being tackled without the ball – an infringement that went unnoticed by the officials.

Francis Ledger converted from out wide for an imposing 10-0 lead.

Another cheap turnover invited the Falcons back into the Rockcote Bulls’ red-zone. The visitors cashed in again thanks to a beautiful ball from Tavita, which saw second-rower Daniel Reuelu-Buchanan steam through a gap for a simple 18th-minute try.

At 16-0 down Canterbury’s place in the final was looking much shakier than it was prior to kick-off.

But the Rockcote Bulls belatedly started to make some inroads and opened their account in the 25th minute courtesy of some magic from Ben Ilalio. The giant winger climbed over his opposite to reel in a Brad Campbell bomb, stayed in the field of play and flicked the ball back infield for centre Will Tafua, who did well the get the ball down.

Akarana dominated possession in the last 10 minutes of the first half, however, and Canterbury’s goal-line defence buckled as hooker Sioeli Makaui burrowed over for a simple dummy-half try – and a 22-4 halftime advantage.

The Rockcote Bulls narrowly avoided falling even further behind just before the break after adding to their massive error count near their goal-line.

The home side put themselves under immediate pressure in the second half, with Tauvale coughing up a bomb 20 metres out from the Canterbury line. But this time the Rockcote Bulls’ defence held solid.

There was a lengthy delay just six minutes after the resumption as classy Falcons No.1 Siaki was stretchered off with a suspected broken leg. Rockcote Bulls five-eighth Toi Sepuloni also exited due to injury.

Play resumed more than 20 minutes later and the Rockcote Bulls scored a crucial try at the end of their first possession. Campbell’s long kick took a wicked bounce, the halfback regathered it and found fellow 19-year-old Jope Tagicakibau – a late pre-game replacement in the starting back-row for Matt Sauni – in support to charge away for Canterbury’s second.

But the game swung back the Falcons’ way in the 51st minute as Paul Sauni’s cut-out ball was snaffled by Tavita, who streaked 85 metres for an intercept try to restore his side’s 18-point advantage.

Despite several opportunities, Canterbury was unable to eat into the deficit in the ensuing 20 minutes, but Alani Kakoi’s dart from dummy-half with nine minutes remaining revived the hosts’ hopes of finishing on the right side of the for-and-against equation.

James Baxendale’s missed conversion left the Rockcote Bulls 14 points in arrears.

They forced a line drop-out with three minutes to go but a gilt-edged chance to grab a place in the Premiership decider when the Falcons’ restart bounced into touch.

Akarana centre Nalu Tuigamala sealed his side’s place in the final – and pushed Canterbury further down into the points differential mire – with a late kick-and-chase try.

In a disappointing overall team effort, front-row veteran Rulon Nutira stood tall, while Campbell again played with tenacity and a maturity that belies his tender years, and Tagicakibau’s performance on the left edge was eye-catching.

Akarana Falcons34 (Dylan Tavita 2, Polima Siaki, Daniel Reuelu-Buchanan, Sioeli Makaui, Nalu Tuigamala tries; Francis Ledger 5 goals) defeated Rockcote Canterbury Bulls (Will Tafua, Jope Tagicakibau, Alani Kakoi tries; James Baxendale goal)  at Rugby League Park, Christchurch.

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