Upper Clutha scores late to take game in warm conditions

Given that the temperature at kick-off was 26degC, you could excuse the champion Upper Clutha team for dozing off in the second half of its encounter against the Cromwell Rams on the opening day of the Central Otago premier rugby competition on Saturday.

It scarcely seemed believable that with 17 minutes to play, home team Cromwell was suddenly ahead 24-22.

Cromwell had been comprehensively outplayed in the first half by an accomplished opponent, the same one that had demolished it 27-8 in the 2018 grand final.

Upper Clutha was way out in front 22-5 at the break, a bonus point for four tries in the bank, and a lead that could have been substantially bigger had goalkicker Sean Murray been on target.

Whatever the Cromwell coaches Matt Brailey and Matt Ludeman said at halftime certainly worked. Obviously, they asked for greater commitment and their players responded magnificently.

In the 43rd, 53rd and 63rd minutes, Cromwell scored tries, the third of these a spectacular solo effort by centre Hayden Todd, who beat at least six defenders in a 45-metre surge from a tap penalty.

It would probably have won Todd player of the day status, had Cromwell held on for victory, but Upper Clutha suddenly remembered how it had wrapped up the 2018 title and seized control of the game again.

Two late tries, by second five-eighth Oliver Stirling and hooker Joseph Cairns - one of the stars of the day - guaranteed a 36-24 winning start for the champion.

Upper Clutha's talented lock Brendon Murdoch, who transferred from Taieri between seasons gave a mighty display.

Cromwell manager Russell Decke conceded that his team was controlled in the set pieces but he was happy it fought back and scored points.

Upper Clutha manager Robert Nolan was just relieved to come away from a challenging contest with a victory.

"We went away from the basics in the third quarter, but knitted together strongly at the finish. It's early days, but nice to kick off with a victory,'' he said.

One of the most gratifying aspects of the game was that there was not one collapsed scrum, which reflected well on both teams and the referee Andrew Laughton.

Wakatipu, semifinalist in 2018, launched its season on a winning note, taking apart Maniototo 29-5 at Maniototo. Lock Rafael Tuhura made his 100th premier team appearance.

Alexandra, which had little to celebrate in 2018, finished over the top of the Cromwell Cavaliers, 14-13, at Molyneux Park.

A try five minutes from time put Alexandra back in the game and victory was secured in the final seconds when Taura Wilson landed a penalty goal.

The fourth game of the weekend never eventuated, as Matakanui Combined defaulted to Arrowtown, an outcome that will have Central Otago rugby administrators alarmed.

 - Bob Howitt

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