Via The Press – by Tony Smith

The Canterbury Bulls will host their first national rugby league premiership grand final for 10 years after a comeback win over the Counties Manukau Stingrays.

Co-captain Tevin Arona scooted over for a converted try in the dying minutes to earn the Bulls a hard-fought win on Sunday in their first ever representative game at their Nga Puna Wai stadium, the new home of Canterbury Rugby League.

Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi said it was “massive for our region” to get to host the final next Sunday against Auckland’s Akarana Falcons.

It will be the first national grand final decider in Christchurch since the Bulls beat Auckland 26-20 in the Bartercard Premiership final in 2010 at Rugby League Park.

The Bulls – seeking their first national title since 2014 – had to do it the hard way, striking back against a committed Counties Manukau side.

After a scoreless, defences-dominated first half, the game came alive in the second spell with eight tries in the hot, sapping spring sunshine.

Counties struck twice within three minutes with tries to Richard Toa’i and James Dowie – the latter after neat footwork by Geronimo Doyle – to establish a 10-0 lead.

Canterbury hit back through a try to fullback Ben Ilalio, who had looked lively all game, to reduce the deficit to four points.

The Bulls got a break when Counties hooker Netani Vi was sinbinned in the 56th minute after match officials ruled he had punched Canterbury’s West Coast-based wing Regan Stanton.

With scrumhalf Brad Campbell and hooker Brad Austin – a Halswell stalwart and Canadian international – pulling the strings, the Bulls ran in two tries while Vi was sidelined.

Austin caught Counties napping with his speed from dummy half and broke a couples to put centre Erwin Sauni away.

Campbell stepped off his left foot, then his right and passed to Caius Fa’atili on the burst, with the 17-year-old Bulls forward’s stepping ability and strength carrying him to the try-line.

Restored to 13 men, Counties came back from 18-10 down to 22-18 ahead after tries by Nicholas Halalilo and tireless centre George Edwards.

With time ticking away, Canterbury loose forward Michael Butson made a barnstorming break, but Arona dropped his pass.

It looked like an opportunity lost for the Bulls until Stanton inspired a telling raid, taking the high ball near his own line and winning a penalty after a strong carry.

The Bulls swept upfield with their halves handling, along with Ilalio and forwards Danny Latu and James Baxendale, whose intelligent inside pass put Arona in between the posts to tie the score with the try and add the winning points from the kicking tee.

It was Arona’s fifth try in the three-game round robin series and the young co-skipper was thrilled with how the Bulls exploited their one-man advantage with Vi in the sinbin to clinch their third consecutive win.

“I thought we executed pretty well,” Arona told Sky Sport. “We took advantage of the short side and got a few points in that 10 minutes.”

Akarana Falcons, who beat Counties Manukau last week, confirmed their place in the final with a 12-try 66-14 win over Waikato in Hamilton on Saturday.

Sam Fa’Apito got two tries for Akarana and Francis Leger scored 22 points from a try and nine goals.


Final round results from the NZ National Rugby League Premiership

On Saturday at Hamilton

Akarana Falcons 66 (Sam Fa’Apito 2, Francis Leger, Chase Bernard, Matti Tuitama, David Dyer, Josiah Afu, Solomon Vasuvulagi, Hoani Rogers-Brown, Siliga Kepaoa, Jordan Te Aho, Darren Kellet-Moore tries; Leger 9 goals) Waikato 18 (Raynard Haggie, Pawhare Brown, Sam Matangi tries; Hayden Karena 3 goals).

On Sunday at Christchurch

Canterbury Bulls 24 (Ben Ilalio, Erwin Sauni, Caius Fa’atili, Tevin Arona tries; Arona 4 goals) Counties Manukau Stingrays 22 (Richard Toa’i, James Dowie, Nicholas Halalio, George Edwards tries; Drew Radich 3 goals). HT: 0-0.

Grand Final: Saturday October 5 at Christchurch

Canterbury Bulls v Akarana Falcons.

Photo Credit: John Davidson – Photosport

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