Northwood deservedly beat Port Natal 12-3 to claim the Damelin Night Series title for 2013. The win was made possible thanks to some outstanding work by the pack and excellent defence all round.
Port Natal came into the match high on confidence, having won all five of their round-robin stage games; the only team to have achieved this. Although in terms of size they were a smaller team than Northwood, the Porties boys had played with a high degree of skill, commitment and composure throughout the tournament. These attributes were again put to the test in the final and although they were the eventual losers on the night, their tremendous school spirit shone through as they went down fighting to the very last play.
For Northwood, the victory was made possible by a number of factors that allowed them to dominate territory and possession during the game. Their contesting at breakdown made for fantastic viewing. Boys hit the rucks with speed, power and must importantly purpose. Whenever Porties attempted to pick ‘n drive or pop ‘n drive beyond second phase, more often than not it resulted in the hosts losing ground or conceding possession via turnovers, such was the nature of the physical collisions and skills being shown by the Northwood forwards. It was tough enough that Porties’ halfback duo of Hennie Janse van Rensburg and Merlyn Pieterse had to work off backfoot scraps but the two players were also placed under tremendous pressure by Northwood. This coupled with the speed at which the outside defence got up to close down the wider spaces, saw to it that the dangerous Port Natal backline had precious few opportunities to get going. In more open play when something was on out wide for Porties, Northwood often responded with good defensive structure and sound first time tackles to compliment it. However despite all this above mentioned good defensive work by the visitors, they actually delivered the biggest killer blow to Port Natal’s chances in the unlikeliest of areas of play. Based on size and conditioning going into the match Northwood were predicted to win the physical battle in the loose and gain ascendancy in scrums but with three good lineout options, Porties were expected to at a minimum hold their own in the lineout setpiece. This did not happen. Northwood was simply brilliant on defensive lineouts. Here Shane Kennedy delivered a man of the match type performance. What should have been safe Porties ball to the front jumper in the lineout and a platform to attack off, often got turned over by some excellently timed intercepting jumps made mainly by Kennedy.
With so much good work being achieved up front and the possession and territory stakes going their way, questions have to be asked how Northwood only managed to cross the line for two tries. Well some tenatious defending of their own kept Port Natal in the hunt. They may have been forced backwards but they never conceded big chunks of ground at during any phase and often reorganised themselves very rapidly to break up the next attack launched. A memorable 65-metre clean break off the back of a scrum deep within their own area by speedy Northwood No. 8 Gareth Murran stood out as the only occasion when the Port Natal secondary defensive structure failed to respond to a adequately to a breach and even in this impressive move was eventually halted by the cross cover. From a Northwood point of view they need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to extract more offensive qualities out of their backs, who look one-dimensional and lack an x-factor like they had in Wade Worthington the year before. Thabo Thabese still looks to be the one sharp player that can get them over the advantage line, yet he finds himself out on the wing instead of closer to the action where he could possibly have a greater influence on the game. At the very minimum, more backline cohesion on attack is called for. Although passes went to hand and accuracy could not be faulted, the boys looked to be going through the motions much of the time without bringing the crispness or energy needed to penetrate the Porties defence. It is hard to criticise the Northwood forwards after the effort they put in but perhaps they to need to work more on attack variation.
All the points in the game came during a 5-minute passage in the first half. A well co-ordinated and patient buildup inside the redzone saw Northwood forwards gradually advancing towards the goal-line where Porties appeared to have halted the momentum of the drive but an opportunity opened for the alert Shane Kennedy to pick and dive over from close range as part of his good evening’s work. Sassa Makhanye then landed the difficult conversion using the outside foot to put the visitors 7-0 up after 18 minutes. Straight from the kickoff Porties captain and no.8 Sarel Kruger led by example, putting in a hit that won the ball back for his team. At the ensuing ruck, Northwood infringed and Janse van Rensburg struck a sweet kick to make it 7-3. The next kickoff and this time Porties failed to control the ball. Northwood gathered and worked the ball around but it was ultimately Cameron du Plessis’s mini break that unhinged the defence and laid the platform for the impressive flank from Lithuania Jonas Mikalcius to crash over near the left corner for an unconverted try, making it 12-3. Just before the halftime whistle, Porties had their best try-scoring chance of the match when flyhalf Pieterse who has a Luke McAllister-like gift of being able to put near perfect weighting on his short kicks, quickly responded to the Northwood line rushing up by pushing an accurate kick in behind them for his outside backs to run onto. Unfortunately an obstruction infringement went undetected by the ref which prevented Porties from collecting the bouncing ball with the tryline was at their mercy.
Porties were forced to reshuffle their team in the second half as a series of injuries, one of them fairly serious disrupted their playing patterns. They put in a noble attempt to change the course of the game in the second half but Northwood’s defence stood firm. In the end the right team walked off with the spoils.
Although this tournament is very much a designed to be preseason workout in which the results do not count on any of the ranking systems, it nevertheless has set Northwood on the right path for 2013. Even though there is still a lot of work ahead before the season starts, Northwood are going to be very competitive opponents for the KZN Tier-1 heavyweights this season.
Compliments must go the organisers Port Natal for putting on yet another successful Night Series and thanks to the sponsors Damelin for their generous support of this worthy event.