At Rawhiti 1: Christchurch 40 (Ben Ardagh, Sam Cottam, Nick Annear, Simon Forrest tries; Jason Merrett 4 conv, 4 pen) beat New Brighton 39 (Tulolo Tulolo 2, Kieron Fonotia 2, Brett Mather tries; Stefan Moir 4 conv, 2 pen). HT: 18-13. Sin-bin: Nick Annear (Christchurch), Ben Ardagh (Christchurch), Ben Faasavala (New Brighton). Referee: Carl Johnson.
The rugby gods must have been in an impish mood. New Brighton were ahead 39-16 with 15min to play, and looking likely to cut loose further through their dangerous backs.
But Christchurch kept plugging away through the forwards. Big Sam Cottam crashed over in a scramble and feisty halfback Nick Annear suddenly took off like a cut cat to the line while almost everyone else stood and watched.
Then Jason Merrett chose to kick a penalty goal to seal the bonus point and that was that – or so it seemed.
Everyone’s watch, except the referee’s, said time was up. The game went on. The Christchurch forwards fought back to the Brighton line and hooker Simon Forrest tunneled under a mass of bodies to score.
Merrett kicked the conversion from a handy position but the touch judges took an age to put their flags up, possibly like everyone else refusing to believe what had happened.
Then the Christchurch bench and supporters staged a pitch invasion that would have done justice to a World Cup final. Somewhere amid the melee Carl Johnson presumably blew his whistle. It was finally over.
Where to start with assessments? Well, Merrett kicked every goal he attempted. Kieran Coll and William Mills were superb carrying the ball in the first quarter and they soldiered on to the end.
Matt Etheredge had his moments and Gus Middleton came into his own in the final act of the drama.
Steve Alfeld made a fair fist of the second-five duties while promoted second-division player Ben Ardagh deserved his try.
Brighton in a sense deserved to win but they need to learn about the fat lady, and support staff might be better to tell them there are 10min left rather than one.
Kieron Fonotia was always a threat while Tulolo Tulolo boosted his impressive try-scoring tally and set Fonotia up for his first try by popping up in midfield and slipping a deft in-pass to the centre. Stefan Moir made a lot of sharp cuts and slammed some booming punts. Scott Davidson made one huge break and Brett Mather kept the defence guessing.
In the forwards, Billy Harmon was a human dynamo in the No.7 jersey, carrying the ball impressively and despite his lack of real height proving a very useful lineout target.
Lock Joe Stewart put in an aggressive, intelligent performance around the field while the wily Aaron McCoy helped keep Brighton on track until the final fateful minutes.
Hawkins Medal (MVP): Jason Merrett (Christchurch) 3, Kieran Coll (Christchurch) 2, William Mills (Christchurch) 1.