Canterbury wrapped up their third straight title with a clinical 33-13 victory over Waikato in the ITM Cup final at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Friday.
The reigning champions played superb counter-attacking rugby to avenge a regular season defeat to Waikato, who failed to reproduce the power up front that saw off Auckland in last weekend's semi-final. Winger Tu-Umaga Marshall bagged the opening try for Canterbury early on, with Ryan Crotty, Matt Todd and Colin Slade also pouncing to ensure that the Cup would join the Ranfurly Shield in their trophy cabinet over the summer.
Waikato scored two tries of their own through Toby Smith and Henry Speight but were outfought by their more experienced hosts in dire conditions. Both kickers struggled to master the swirling wind and rain, with Slade missing a clutch of early chances before hitting his stride to land two penalties and two conversions to go with his late five-pointer.
Canterbury waited only two minutes for their opening try as Umaga-Marshall exploited a defensive lapse from Waikato No.8 Alex Bradley. The home side had hammered away to little avail before an unusually quiet Robbie Fruean found a couple of metres of space along the flank. His kick ahead was scooped into the in-goal area by the covering Bradley and Umaga-Marshall made no mistake after a kind bounce inches from the dead ball line.
Slade sent his conversion attempt across the face of goal and Waikato struck back almost immediately. After a couple of uncomfortable scrums for Canterbury inside their own 22 the visitors went back to basics and used the grunt of their forwards to batter an opening. Bradley took the ball to within inches with a surge and his effort was followed up by loose-head Smith, who took a couple of tacklers across the whitewash with him.
After Trent Renata had missed the conversion, Waikato almost fell behind to one of the more bizarre tries. A Slade penalty was held up by the wind and Speight made an almighty mess of the clear-up job under pressure from Umaga-Marshall. Crotty raced in to touch the ball down but the TMO was on the side of Waikato - ruling that Speight had been tackled without the ball.
Slade missed another penalty when Waikato's young halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow was pinged for offside but the one-time All Black sent his fourth effort through the uprights despite the uncompromising wind, giving Canterbury an 8-5 lead on 22 minutes. Canterbury tight-head Peter Borlase, who is soon to join Munster, was then penalised for hands in the ruck and Renata levelled the scores with a simple kick from in front.
The home side were again denied by the TMO as lock Isaac Ross was forced across the Waikato line but a poor kick from Kerr-Barlow gifted them the lead just before half-time. The scrum-half's kick rebounded off the outstretched leg of Slade, leaving Crotty with the simplest of finishes in the corner. Again the wind and rain did its part to ensure that the conversion went missing.
Slade extended the lead with a penalty two minutes after the restart but Speight bit back with a well-taken try to throw the game back into the balance. Waikato had lost a prime attacking opportunity when a five-metre scrum resulted in a Canterbury turnover but minutes later the visiting pack atoned with a series of drives to open up space for their winger. Dominiko Waqaniburotu and Aled de Malmanche drove on before replacement scrum-half Brendon Leonard whipped the ball wide for Speight to finish.
Renata missed the conversion and Canterbury poured forward in response. Halfback Willie Heinz was felled just short after an enterprising run before replacement fly-half Stephen Brett took over with a couple of well-judged kicks and half-breaks to calm an increasingly frenzied game.
One such Brett touch-finder was rewarded with the crucial try to openside Todd. Romana Graham safely claimed the lineout for Waikato but Leonard's casual box-kick was expertly charged down by impressive No.8 Nasi Mau, with the ball falling kindly for Todd to race away and score under the posts.
The excellent Slade wrapped a bow around the result with Canterbury's fourth, gambling on a poor kick from Tim Mikkelson to fly clear. Having been switched to fullback he latched onto the ball early and was celebrating from 40 metres out. He then added the simple conversion before Brett knocked over a late penalty to add further gloss to the scoreline.