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The Whalers looked to be in good touch early in the contest and when second rower Jong Hoon Lee crossed over for the first try, it appeared that all the momentum rested with the home side. Centre Apii Taia was the next to score, busting through the tackle attempts of several defenders on his way to the line. The Eels were under a lot of pressure for the rest of the half.
The Whalers broke the line on several occasions and had many opportunities to score that went missing. A forward pass denied them a certain try in the left corner, and some tidy cover defence from the Eels prevented another likely try-scoring chance after Andre Kemp’s line break and grubber kick towards the in-goal area.
Taia again showed his strong ball-running skills when he stormed through some hapless defenders to dot down for his second try. As halftime approached, the Eels sneaked through the defensive line with a well-executed grubber kick that was pounced on to score, taking the score to 16-6 at the break.
The second period of play was significantly dissimilar, as the Eels applyied pressure and attacked the Whalers’ defensive line relentlessly. Poor discipline cost the Otago side, and several penalties began to take their toll. Two further tries to the Eels, adding to the six points scored in the first half, brought the scores level. The defensive workload was enormous and the efforts of Hagan Free, with an astonishing 59 tackles, Josh Mckenzie (50 tackles) and Jong Hoon Lee (41 tackles) was remarkable. McKenzie and Lee have been the best second-row pairing in the competition, and with Free at lock, the Whalers forward pack has been crucial to its success thus far.
In the final minute of play, a penalty was awarded 30m out from the posts. Five-eighth Louis Tili stepped up to the tee under immense pressure and converted the opportunity to notch up the Whalers’ third successive win and keep them on top of the South Island Premiership ladder.
Coach David Reedy was pleased to get the win, but not pleased with his side’s second-half performance. He was disappointed that the Eels put them under a lot of pressure and they then compounded that pressure by making unforced errors early in the tackle count, preventing them from building and applying any pressure on the opposition. Trainings this week would be targeted to address those concerns.
The Whalers head to Blenheim this weekend to face the Tasman Titans in the final game of the competition. If they win, they will be crowned as back-to-back South Island champions and gain entry into the national championship competition with North Island opponents.
In the other game of the round, the Southland Rams routed the Titans 62-12.
- Ricki Allan