Auckland were spared relegation from the Mitre 10 premiership thanks to Bay of Plenty’s 36-32 win over Waikato in Tauranga on Saturday.
Canterbury had opened the door for Waikato to survive by beating Auckland 32-27 at Eden Park on Friday night, but the Steamers slammed it shut to send the Mooloos down to the second tier of the provincial structure for the first time since 1986.
Auckland have never played outside the top tier, but Waikato’s calamitous seven-match losing streak – a growing province record – sees them finish bottom and fall to the championship for next season.
Bay of Plenty’s win at Tauranga Domain secures a home semi-final in the championship for next weekend and Mike Delany’s experience at first five-eighth had the Steamers clicking as their threatening back line cut Waikato to pieces.
But Bay of Plenty were only 19-12 ahead at half-time and Sevu Reece scored a vital try – after making the initial break – just after the hooter sounded to keep the Mooloos very much alive in this contest.
Waikato’s players gathered in a huddle, knowing their premiership status was at stake, as the second half kicked off and Pita Ahki’s try brought the Mooloos level in the 44th minute.
When Lalakai Foketi returned from the sinbin, after seeing yellow just before Reece’s try, Waikato had run in two converted tries and Ahki’s penalty then put the visitors ahead for the first time, at 22-19.
Waikato at last had some belief after losing their last six matches but Ahki, who was in the thick of everything, was sinbinned after an hour for a deliberate knock down after the Steamers applied intense pressure on Waikato’s line.
Bay of Plenty finally cracked Waikato’s assistance when Foketi powered over for what his second try and Waikato, with a man down, had 17 minutes to turn things around to avoid relegation.
But the Steamers got a roll on, as Delany added a penalty before Luke Campbell picked up and dotted down to score to give Bay of Plenty a 36-22 lead before Laghlan McWhannell and Loni Uhila grabbed late consolation tries for Waikato.
Queues of fans in opposing colours – which extended down the streets well into the first half – poured into a packed Tauranga Domain on a beautiful sunny afternoon where more than 5,000 were present.
The heat was on both sides to deliver under pressure and after Bay of Plenty came flying out of the blocks, fullback Chase Tiatia strolled over in the 11th minute to open the scoring.
Waikato’s early struggles were compounded when Zac Guildford left the field with injury just before the Steamers broke the deadlock.
But the Mooloos were back in it minutes later when Atu Moli crashed over to make it 5-5 from their first attack.
Bay of Plenty were guilty of forcing the issue, but the hosts gained control and ran in two tries through Foketi and Terrence Hepetama to lead 19-5 when the half-time hooter sounded.
But after Reece’s surging run, Foketi saw yellow for a cynical knock down as the Steamers scrambled, and Reece crucially finished the opportunity for Waikato, who trailed by just seven at the break.
Ahki then scored 10 points himself to put the Mooloos three in front, but his yellow card after Bay of Plenty’s long stint in Waikato’s 22 typified their desperation in defence.
Foketi and Campbell then went over to secure Bay of Plenty’s bonus point – either side of a Delany penalty – and put the hosts out of sight.
A Waikato mistake ended the game and confirmed relegation.
Bay of Plenty 36 (Chase Tiatia, Lalakai Foketi 2, Terrence Hepetama, Luke Campbell tries; Mike Delany 4 con, pen) Waikato 32 (Atu Moli, Sevu Reece, Pita Ahki, Laghlan McWhannell, Loni Uhila tries; Ahki, Reece con; Ahki pen). HT: 19-12