The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls’ place in the 2018 NZRL National Premiership final could be confirmed on Saturday afternoon, but coach Andrew Auimatagi is determined to ensure his team’s focus remains purely on their next 80-minute assignment – a clash with Waikato at Rugby League Park in Christchurch.

The Rockcote Bulls pulled off a nerve-shredding 20-18 upset of bogey side Counties Manukau Stingrays in Auckland last Sunday. If they account for Waikato, who were trounced 46-6 by Akarana in Round 1, and the Falcons beat the Stingrays, the Rockcote Bulls will have qualified for their first decider since 2015 with one round remaining.

While ecstatic with the result and most elements of the Rockcote Bulls’ first-up performance, Auimatagi believes his team has plenty of improvement left in them.

“It was a bit of a nail-biter in the end but a really pleasing win,” Auimatagi said.

“I think the boys threw a lot into the game and we were feeling pretty confident for most of it, but that second half when we didn’t convert some opportunities, it really put us under some pressure.”

Canterbury got off to a flyer with tries to Hornby centres Will Tafua and Dene Grace giving them a 14-6 lead, which was trimmed to two points by halftime. The Rockcote Bulls enjoyed the better of possession and territory for most of the second stanza, but they couldn’t add to the scoreboard and a try from a bomb put the Stingrays in front for the first time with 15 minutes left.

Giant winger Ben Ilalio pounced on a Counties error in the 73rd minute, however, and powered away for the leveller before captain James Baxendale’s clutch conversion sealed the win.

“The first 20 minutes was our best footy and we kind of went away from some of the key things we wanted to focus on,” Auimatagi explained.

“But to see the boys hang in there, and some of the key guys in the team, the leaders, stepping up in that last 10 to 15 minutes was a good sign for the next few weeks hopefully.”

Surprise finalists last year, Waikato’s heavy defeat to the Falcons will see them arrive in the south as underdogs – but Auimatagi says Canterbury won’t be taking the visitors lightly.

“As a group we’ve set some targets and a theme for this weekend, so we’re just focusing on our preparation.

“The boys have been a big part of that so they’ve got some goals they want to achieve.

“Straight away the boys really hit it on the head on where we need to be better – more consistently better in our defence, particularly in the tackle and controlling the ruck, and not wasting so many shots in attack.

“(The Waikato-Akarana clash) looked like a pretty physical game, I think two guys from (Waikato’s) team were injured so they were down a few men and I think the result will definitely motivate them to bounce back this weekend against us. It’s the first time in a few years a Waikato team has been down here and I’m sure they’ll be looking forward to that opportunity.

“And at home, (this year) could be the last time a Canterbury team plays at Rugby League Park so there’s a lot for our boys to play for.”

The Rockcote Bulls emerged unscathed injury-wise from Round 1 but the classy Grace is unavailable to take on Waikato due to a family bereavement.

“Dene was one of our best on the weekend I thought so we’ll miss him,” Auimatagi lamented.

“But it’s a sad time for his family so our thoughts are with them. Whoever comes in will be a pretty good replacement.”

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Panthers halfback Brad Campbell was the talk of the premiership after a stellar Rockcote Bulls debut, impressing with his tenacious defence, strong running game, support play and astute kicking.

“He delivered on everything we asked of him and it was great to see him take that with two hands,” Auimatagi said of the boom West Coast product.

“He showed why he was selected and took some of his finals form into the rep campaign, which is pretty outstanding for a young guy who hasn’t really been exposed to that level of footy.”

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