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Auckland scrape past Counties

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Sportal.co.nz     04 Sep 2013     Getty Images

In a match where the lead changed hands four times, it was ironic that the Blues hooker-come-prop who struggled at the set piece should be the hero to save the day.

He finished off a well worked lineout move to aquaplane across the whitewash six minutes from time.

Auckland first-five Simon Hickey, who scored 17 of Auckland's points, sealed the win when he converted the try from the right touch line and capped off a flawless performance with the boot.

Auckland moved into second place on the premiership ladder, but will await the result of Canterbury's match against Bay of Plenty on Thursday to find out whether they'll hold that spot for the round.

Coming off a dismal loss to Tasman, Counties Manukau were firm underdogs, as reflected by Auckland coach Wayne Pivac's decision to bench stars Piri Weepu and Luke Braid.

However, wet conditions meant handling errors were aplenty and the territory battle was key.

That's where Counties first-five Ki Anufe excelled and kept his side in the attacking half for 55 percent of the opening stanza.

He also proved valuable from the kicking tee, nudging an impressive penalty over from half-way and converting tries to Frank Halai and Rey Lee-Lo.

However, Counties coach Tana Umaga will rue some uncharacteristic play from Sherwin Stowers who made life difficult for the Steelers on both sides of half-time.

His impressive burst through a staggered defensive line from a kick return ended in a turnover that saw Auckland draw first blood with a penalty goal by Simon Hickey.

He cost his side another three points when was sin-binned one minute into the second half for infringing at the ruck. Then he dropped the ball 10 meters out from his line from a standard kick.

The visitors had come under fire for their poor performances at the set piece in previous matches, but they were made to look like the dominant pack thanks to some wayward lineout throws by Auckland hooker McCartney.

When Counties did get their opportunities, Anufe was on hand to convert.

The 2,531 fans at Eden Park found it slightly entertaining when the Bombay playmaker missed an ambitious attempt from 56 metres out. But he was able to prove his ability on his next attempt from a similar position to secure a 6-3 lead.

However, one last scrum provided Halai with an opportunity to beat his opposite Tenina Sauileoge one-on-one to score in the right corner.

Anufe converted from the touch line to provide the visitors with a healty seven-point buffer.

Clearly disappointed with Auckland, which made five handling errors in the first 40 minutes, coach Pivac hooked Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Sean Polwart and George Moala at the break.

They were replaced by Angus Ta'avao, Luke Braid and Saleaula respectively.

Looking to build on their lead, Counties were stunned when referee Glen Jackson awarded a yellow card to Stowers for a what he deemed to be a professional foul.

Hickey was able to convert the penalty from in front before slotting another two moments later.

It looked like Counties were going to run sneak away with the upset when Lee-Lo strolled over for a late converted try.

However, McCartney finished off lineout move to score in the right corner.

With the scores level at 20-20, Hickey converted the try from the touch line to regain the lead for the second time in the match.

Auckland: 22 (Tom McCartney try; Simon Hickey con, 5 pen)

Counties Manukau: 20 (Frank Halai, Rey Lee-Lo tries; Ki Anufe 2 cons, 2 pen)

HT:13-6 Counties Manukau