The Rockcote Canterbury Bulls have taken a huge step towards their first NZRL National Premiership final in four years, opening up their 2019 campaign with a convincing 28-18 victory over defending champs Akarana Falcons at  Pulman Park.

The Bulls overcame the demands of travelling to Auckland on the morning of the match – and an early deficit – to carve out one of their best wins of recent seasons.

The underdogs trailed 12-0 midway through the first half but posted six unanswered tries, including a four-try flurry during the second stanza, to run away with the win. But while the Bulls produced several wonderful long-range tries, their gutsy scrambling defence was equally crucial to the boilover.

Rockcote Canterbury Bulls co-captain Tevin Arona scored a hat-trick and laid on another in his side’s upset of Akarana Falcons.

The early signs were ominous for the Bulls, however, conceding a solo try to Falcons halfback Eiden Ackland in just the third minute.

Akarana doubled their advantage in the 21st minute with a try against the run of play. Francis Ledger intercepted a pass from opposing No.6 and captain Tevin Arona five metres out from the Falcons’ line, before linking with winger Simon Luafalealo to streak away.

Jordan Coleman had a strong debut for the Bulls at fullback.

The Bulls landed on the scoreboard in the 28th minute through a brilliant piece of sleight of hand from Arona. The gifted playmaker jumped out of dummy-half and hit big winger Ben Ilalio were a superb cut-out ball near the Falcons’ line.

They received a massive boost on the stroke of halftime as 17-year-old phenom Caius Fa’atili unleashed his raw talent on the Falcons, bumping and fending his way through three tackles before sending Riccarton veteran Justin Lynch away for a try on Bulls debut.

Canterbury hit the front 16-12 at the 50-minute mark when Fa’atili exploded again. The back-rower powered into open spaces, covering 60 metres before firing an inside ball to Arona, who scooted away to score.

Arona races away for the first of his three tries.

The momentum shift was palpable: Bulls wing debutant Regan Stanton finished off a backline shift soon afterwards, extending the lead to eight points following quick hands from second-rower Danny Latu and fullback Jordan Coleman.

The Bulls took a real stranglehold on the match with 15 minutes remaining on the back of a long break down the middle of the field from Ilalio.

A slick offload from second-rower Danny Latu found Arona again ranging up on the inside, the five-eighth zipping over for his second try.

Danny Latu had a hand in back-to-back Bulls tries in the second half.

The visitors turned on the razzle-dazzle with 10 minutes left to seal an emphatic result. The rampaging Ilalio carved through the Falcons again and linked with the ever-present Arona, who bamboozled the cover defence to finish off a 70-metre special in the corner and complete a second-half hat-trick.

Akarana belatedly found a way past Canterbury’s ultra-committed goal-line defence to pick up a consolation try inside the last two minutes.

A possible knee injury to Fa’atili in the dying moments is a potential worry ahead of next week’s clash with Waikato in Hamilton – and the only possible negative to come out of an outstanding team performance from the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls.

Teenage sensation Caius Fa’atili laid on two tries with big breaks, but finished the match nursing a knee complaint.

Rockcote Canterbury Bulls 28 (Tevin Arona 3, Ben Ilalio, Justin Lynch, Regan Stanton tries; Caius Fa’atili 2 goals) defeated Akarana Falcons 18 at Pulman Park, Auckland. 

The Bulls’ 10-point win had lock Michael Butson beaming.

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