Southland notched just their second win at Albany when they edged North Harbour 24-17 in a close and entertaining ITM Cup Championship clash today.
The home side were competitive throughout and troubled the visitors when they chose to move the ball wide but conservative tactics of playing it close to the ruck and ill-discipline were their undoing.
Four second-half penalties for ruck and offside infringements allowed Southland to regain the lead after trailing by two at the break, while a try in the 60th minute to replacement halfback Jimmy Cowan all but sealed the result.
Cowan had a mixed half hour stint however, his first touches producing a charged down kick, a knock-on and a forward pass, before he flung a wayward reverse flick-pass to no one, that allowed Harbour's replacement back Bryn Hall to score in the 68th minute and give the hosts faint hope of victory.
It was all too little too late however, and with three matches remaining against Wellington (away), Auckland (home) and Tasman (away), North Harbour are facing the very real prospect of being the first team to suffer the ignominy of going through an entire season without tasting victory since Counties-Manukau's dismal 2007 Air New Zealand Cup campaign.
Southland five-eight Scott Eade opened the scoring in the third minute with a penalty goal after North Harbour's opensider Sam Hayes-Stevenson was pinged for playing the ball without releasing the tackled player.
The hosts hit back with their next taste of possession after an uncharacteristic mistake from Eade gave them the ball in good field position. Several phases took them close to the line before second five-eighth Pita Ahki busted through a tackle two passes wide to run in an easy five-pointer close to the uprights.
Southland then capitalised on a poor clearing kick from Harbour fullback fullback Luke Devcich, Robbie Robinson bursting on to a ball one off the ruck to make a half-break that put them on the front foot. Starting halfback Neemia Kenatale - keeping former All Black Cowan on the bench - slung the ball wide and two simple draw-and-passes saw tireless No. 7 Tim Boys run over out wide before bringing it round closer to the sticks.
The home side had a wealth of possession in the second quarter and were camped down in the visitors half launching raid after raid but were unable to fashion a try to add to their two-point lead and the two sides headed to the sheds with the score 10-8.
Southland regained the lead five minutes after the resumption of play with Eade kniocking over a three-pointer from close range after the Harbour forwards were caught infringing at a ruck.
Six minutes later Eade added another three as ill-discipline again cost the hosts to hand the visitors a three-point advantage.
After his early blemishes, Cowan made amends when he toed ahead the ball at the back of a messy Harbour scrum, before fighting off his own No. 7 to regather the ball and dive over the chalk.
Filo Paulo looked to be hard-done by when he was ruled to have played the ball off his feet allowing Eade to notch another three, before Hall's late score gave them a glimmer of hope.
Harbour pressed hard in the final stages but never looked worthy of the win and their fate was determined in the final minute when they were caught offside while trying to prevent a late try, Eade's last minute penalty robbing the hosts of even a bonus point.
North Harbour 17: Ahki, Hall tries; Devcich 2 cons, 1 pen.
Southland 27: Boys, Cowan tries; Eade 1 con, 1 pen.