Upper Hutt upset Northern United 24-18 at Porirua Park in a thrilling third round set of Jubilee Cup matches played around Wellington, in which three of the four games played went down to the wire.
These close matches also included a last-gasp 23-22 win for Old Boys-University over Hutt Old Boys Marist at the Basin Reserve and a gritty 15-11 victory for Marist St. Pat's over Poneke at Evans Bay Park. The other match proved to be an exception, with Petone defeating Oriental-Rongotai 35-8 at the Polo Ground and emerging as the only bonus point winner of the round.
On the points table, Swindale Shield champions MSP have hit the lead with 13 points after their 13th consecutive win of the season, while in a logjam for second and third, Norths and Petone are on 11 points and Poneke and Upper Hutt are both on 10. Old Boys-University have climbed off the bottom of the table and remain in the hunt for the playoffs, but winless defending champions HOBM and Ories will now need bonus point wins and other results to go their way to make the semi-finals.
Upper Hutt set the third week of Jubilee Cup action alight when they came storming back from an 18-0 halftime deficit against Norths with a flurry of scoring to take the lead off Norths late in the contest. Hurricanes halfback Alby Mathewson scored his team's third converted try of the fourth quarter of play and what was the match winner five minutes from the end, when he regathered his own stab kick for a 19-18 lead. First five-eighth Ben Aoina added the conversion and then sealed an incredible win with a penalty on fulltime.
This was all after Norths had scored three tries before the first 40 minutes were up and appeared to be in control for a comfortable victory. Their first two tries were scintillating efforts and both scored off long-range counterattacking movements. The first was scored by dynamite left-winger Sinoti To'omaga, completing a 60-metre surge up field to increase his 2008 season tally of tries to a remarkable 16 tries in 14 games.
The second was scored by fullback Buxton Popoalii, who has changed his surname from Leutulava since he last took the field for Norths two weeks ago but not his nose for a gap, and No. 8 Anare Koliavu scored the third off a well-controlled lineout drive. However none of these tries were converted by Norths, who also missed a late penalty that would have been an equaliser following Mathewson's try, not for the first time this season exposing a chink in Norths' armour that they will surely need to rectify as the business end of the season fast approaches.
Meanwhile the two halfbacks were leading figures amid a carousel of anxiety at the Basin Reserve, where OBU halfback Tomasi Palu potted a dropped kick from close range with the last play of the game to give his team a one-point victory - after his opposite Nick Risdon had seemingly helped win the game for HOBM with a cleverly weighted stab kick behind OBU's outside back defence that prop Simon Malaeulu ran on to for a try in the corner.
This try gave the Eagles a critical 22-20 lead, after OBU had in turn clawed their way in front after HOBM led 17-7 at halftime. Both the late scores also came directly after missed penalty kicks, Risdon setting up Malaeulu's try after fullback Mike Kingsbeer badly pulled a straightforward penalty across OBU's posts and then OBU regathering possession immediately following a 40-metre Seminar Manu strike on goal falling short of the goalposts.
But HOBM failed to clear for touch - instead sending the return kick straight down the throat of waiting All Black centre Conrad Smith who set up an axis of attack up the left hand touchline with openside flanker James Oliver and lock Sam Green, with Palu slotting the match winning dropped kick over from the ensuing ruck
Smith also played a direct part in both his team's tries in his first club game for exactly a year, doubling round his fullback Shaun O'Conner and offloading in the tackle for Oliver to score the first try on 10 minutes and shovelling a quick pass on up the short side for left wing Scott Murray to score to give his side the lead after 70 minutes.
Earlier, HOBM had scored two decisive tries within moments of each other midway through the first half to break open the game, second five-eighth Mani Malaeulu scoring from a quick lineout that caught OBU short out wide, followed by left wing Eroni Ekevati dancing out of the tackle of OBU No. 8 Tom Everton and scorching up the same touchline for a great try. But continual errors, particularly at lineout time, and a committed OBU saw the home team battle strongly right to the end.
International referee Lyndon Bray doled out three yellow cards over the hill in the battle of Kilbirnie in a match between MSP and Poneke that might have lacked the same drama but was not lacking for any less intensity.
In a scrappy affair, neither side managed to trouble the scoreboard operators until the 35th minute when Bray awarded MSP a penalty try, giving them a 7-0 lead. But Poneke hit straight back before the halftime interval through Vodafone Wellington Lions hooker Dane Coles who capitalised off a MSP lineout mistake and scored in the corner.
Poneke first five-eighth James Pointon added two penalties after the break to give them an 11-7 lead, and for the second week in a row it appeared that MSP might have been heading for their first loss since week one of the season when they were toppled by OBU on Gala Day. However, winger Jope Naubo scored a try for the home side to make it 12-11 and first five-eighth Fa'atonu Fili then added a penalty towards the end.
In Miramar, Petone took their chances against a spirited but ultimately error-ridden Ories team, running in five tries to one. Petone led 15-3 at halftime and further extended their advantage as the game wore on.