At CET Arena, Palmerston North: Canterbury 62 (Fergus Burke tries (2) 10min, 49 min, Brodie McAlister (2) tries 20min, 31min, George Bridge (2) tries 28min, 75min, Manasa Mataele try 45min, Will Gualter try 65min, Chay Fihaki 70min; Burke, 4 cons, pen, Alex Harford 3 cons). Manawatū 15(Leif Schwenke try 63min, Drew Wild try 80min; Brett Cameron con, pen). HT: 29-3
Canterbury have flexed their considerable muscle to start the NPC with a bonus-point win against a brave but mismatched Manawatū.
Fielding what was virtually a Super Rugby-strength side in Palmerston North on Friday, Canterbury’s powerful forward pack was completely dominant at set-piece time, delivering two first-half tries to hooker Brodie McAlister from rolling mauls.
Axed All Blacks winger George Bridge also picked up two tries in a one-sided contest that suggested that there are still very much two tiers in the NPC despite each side contesting for the same prize in this year’s revamped competition.
On Friday’s evidence, Canterbury are going to be serious title contenders with experienced Super Rugby players across their squad, complemented by former test players Owen Franks, Bridge and Willi Heinz.
They look particularly strong in the back row, where All Blacks contender Cullen Grace combined with Highlanders standout Billy Harmon and Crusaders tackling machine Tom Christie on Friday.
Grace was a standout for visitors with his athleticism and work rate, but mention must also be made of Manawatū back-rowers Brayden Iose and TK Howden, who worked extremely hard in a well-beaten side.
Grace was in the thick of the action from the opening seconds of the game, when he crashed the ball up and was involved in a heavy head collision with Turbos prop Harrison Allan.
Somewhat surprisingly, referee Dan Waenga awarded a penalty only despite the upright nature of Allan’s tackle, and neither man was required to undertake an HIA.
Burke scored the first try of the NPC season in the 10th minute, brushing past some ordinary defence from Turbos winger Ed Fidow down the short side and running 50 metres to score.
It was a sign of things to come as Canterbury built a 29-3 lead by halftime and carried on with it in the second spell.
For the Turbos, consolation came from a fine tries by replacement hooker Leif Schwenke and fullback Drew Wild – and in the knowledge they won’t face Canterbury every week.
The big moment
Manasa Mataele’s breakaway try at the start of the second half snuffed out any chance of a Turbos fightback. The Fijian winger linked up beautifully with Canterbury midfielder Dallas McLeod for the five-pointer, which cruelly followed one of the Manawatū’s best periods of the game.
6/10. There were some nice touches from the Crusaders but as the game unfolded it became evident that it was a painfully unfair fight.
No 10 Fergus Burke and hooker Brodie McAlister grabbed two tries apiece and impressed in their respective roles, while Grace did enough to keep his name in the All Blacks conversation. However, workaholic No 7 Tom Christie was into everything during an 80-minute shift and made sure Manawatū couldn’t get any flow into their game.
The big picture
Canterbury host Wellington in Christchurch next Saturday in their first crossover match against a side from the Evens conference. The Turbos host Auckland on Wednesday.