Mitre 10 Cup 2019: Champions Auckland held to opening draw by North Harbour

Premiership champions Auckland have begun their Mitre 10 Cup title defence in unconvincing fashion, hanging on grimly for a 28-28 draw with archrivals North Harbour on a rain-soaked Eden Park.

In a classic Battle of the Bridge encounter, the northern invaders trailed throughout the first half, but roared back into contention and had several chances to steal victory down the home stretch.

The home team opened the scoring with a try to centre Tanielu Tele'a, after first-five Harry Plummer's tactical kick and Caleb Clarke's storming run down the right side.

Moments later, Auckland capitalised on a bad clearance error by Jared Page to force a close-range scrum, and fullback Salesi Rayasi put No.8 Hoskins Sotutu across for the second.

Harbour closed the margin with a try to lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, but the Auckland forwards forced their rivals to collapse a rolling maul on the goal-line, earning a penalty try and sending halfback Bryn Hall to the sidelines for 10 minutes.

One man down, Harbour fullback Shaun Stephenson found touch with a long clearing kick and when Rayasi spilt the quick lineout throw, centre Asaeli Tikoirotuma had a try against the run of play. 

After the half-time siren, Sotutu charged off the back of another five-metre scrum to restore Auckland's advantage beyond double figures, 28-14.

But Harbour returned for the second half with more resolve and struck first, when All Blacks prop Karl Tu'inukuafe bullocked over beside the posts. Shortly afterwards, front-row replacement Lua Li matched that feat to draw level at 28-28.

Harbour turned down a chance to take the lead with a penalty near the posts and from the ensuing lineout, flanker Ethan Roots had a go-ahead try ruled out for a knock-on.

With three minutes remaining, Stephenson took a penalty attempt from his own side of halfway, but hooked it marginally to the left.

After the final siren, Page had another chance to claim the spoils outright, but sliced his kick at goal and Auckland were forced to settle for shared points - a moral victory to their neighbours.

The titleholders will head north to Whangarei for their next outing against Northland on Thursday, while Harbour host Counties Manukau on Friday.

Auckland 28 (Hoskins Sotutu 2, Tanielu Tele'a tries; Harry Plummer three conversions, penalty try) North Harbour 28 (Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Lua Li tries; Jared Page four conversions)



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