An underwhelming 2023 NZRL National Premiership campaign for the SENZ Canterbury Bulls has culminated in a 34-22 relegation match loss to Waikato Mana at Pukekohe’s Navigation Homes Stadium.

The defeat means the SENZ Bulls will spend next year’s representative season striving to regain a place in the Premiership from the second-tier National Championship.

Continuing the trends of its winless pool stage, Canterbury’s defensive lapses, poor completion rate and inability to ice scoring chances while the match was still in the balance proved the difference against a more clinical Waikato outfit.

The writing was on the wall early as the Mana crossed for a brilliant try to winger Thompson Karena inside two minutes, featuring a freakish offload and excellent support play.

The SENZ Bulls hit back in the seventh minute as Penetito Ilalio climbed to take a well-placed kick from half Jimmy Wihongi, giving them a 6-4 lead.

After a lengthy stalemate, Waikato went up a gear to score three tries in the last 11 minutes of the first half, including a sizzing 60-metre team effort finished off by fullback Mahuta Ngataki just before the break that opened up a 20-6 advantage.

The Mana dealt a hammer blow to the SENZ Bulls’ hopes 10 minutes into the second stanza with centre Taylor Leef barging over for his second try from close range.

Waikato effectively clinched its spot in the 2024 National Premiership with a quarter of the contest remaining, running in another two tries to open up an imposing 34-6 scoreline.

Canterbury provided something of a silver lining to a dark afternoon with a spirited last 10 minutes, creating three handy tries.

Wihongi unleashed a dummy, fend and some footwork to score next to the posts after a powerful break from Champ Betham.

With four minutes left, Halswell front-rower Matt Black scooped up a pass that had gone to ground and speared over for a four-pointer.

The SENZ Bulls displayed the execution that had been frustratingly lacking for most of the campaign with a magnificent try on the last play of the game. Veteran playmaker Daniel Hartley launched an inch-perfect cross-field kick over the top of Waikato’s right winger and Ilalio latched onto it to dot down and complete a brace.

The late flurry was not enough to disguise the overriding sense of dissatisfaction from the Canterbury camp, however.

“It’s not a campaign we’re proud of,” Bulls captain Uale Peneli said post-match.

“We tried to  put what happened the last few weeks behind us and try to come down and compete, but we weren’t good enough.

“No excuses, just disappointed.”

Despite the jarring result and its consequences, Peneli credited his side for a strong finish after collapsing to give up six tries in half an hour during the middle stages of the match.

“We didn’t give up, we knew a lot was on the line and we still wanted to play right till the end no matter what the score was.”

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