There was a point late in Saturday’s semifinal when the majority of the New Plymouth Old Boys players looked shocked.
They were standing collectively behind the goal line after Southern replacement Brent Landers had scored in the corner to give the Hawera-based side the lead.
It was easy to figure out why they were struggling to comprehend what was happening.
For 80 per cent of the first half they had pounded away at the Southern line. They tried going close to the ruck. They tried out wide and they tried up the middle.
Nothing was breaking down Southern’s defence, however. They had brought a level of intensity needed to inflict a first loss of the season for Old Boys.
They came damn close to achieving it, too.
A well worked try to No 8 Jesse Parete and Landers’ effort gave them a 12-10 lead. It just wasn’t enough.
As they have done on more than one occasion in 2016, Old Boys found a way to win.
A yellow card to Southern prop Murray Turner stretched the defence enough for a hole to open and Old Boys hooker Caleb Mawson ran through it to score and give the hosts a 15-12 lead.
It ended up at 18-12 after Old Boys captain Liam McBride landed a 40m penalty at the death before his team-mates embraced in relief.
“Southern played really, really well,” McBride acknowledged. “It was full-on for 80 minutes and I’m pretty glad the boys stuck it out to the end, really.”
McBride, playing at first five-eighth, was arguably the difference between Old Boys winning and losing because of the maturity he brought to a backline that lacked penetration, although a lot of that was down to the fact they chose to play such a flat game so close to the advantage line.
McBride also provided valuable cover at the back where space was easily found at critical times by Southern.
“We threw everything at them but they did extremely well with their D [defence]. We just couldn’t breach them. Full credit to them, they played really, really well.”
He put their ability to win tight matches down to the trust they had with one another.
“You just know the next guy beside is going to go as hard as you and that gets us over the line.”
Southern captain Jackson Ormond was clearly disappointed given the fact they had gone so close to causing an upset.
“I thought we turned up here with the right attitude,” he said.
“We knew we had to change a few things and we did that during the week. We created enough to win the game but we probably didn’t execute one or two things.
“But all credit to Old Boys, they’ve had a hell of a year and they deserve to be in the final.”
Ormond said their “heads were up” at halftime after such a strong defensive effort in the first 40 minutes.
“We knew we had to hold on to the ball when we got and while we did score some points, we just didn’t do enough.”
At a glance
New Plymouth Old Boys 18 (Hamish Alabaster, Caleb Mawson tries; Liam McBride 2 pens, con) Southern 12 (Jesse Parete, Brent Landers tries; Daniel Brooks con).