The Canterbury Bulls will have to take the long route to the Bartercard Cup rugby league grand final after coach Phil Prescott admitted they were "never in the game" yesterday against the defending premiers.
Kiwis coach Brian McClennan's Auckland Lions team beat the Bulls, 27-14, at Auckland's Western Springs Stadium yesterday to qualify automatically for the September 18 grand final.
The Bulls will now have to play in next Monday night's preliminary final in Auckland against the winner of tonight's clash between the Tamaki Leopards and the Waitakere Rangers to earn another arm-wrestle with Auckland.
Prescott still believes the Bulls "are the equal" of the Lions, who edged out the Cantabrians in last year's grand final. "But we weren't (yesterday) � we were below the required standard.
"We were never really in the game, for whatever reason."
Auckland raced out to a 6-0 lead but two unconverted tries by centre Lee Fidow, in the eighth and 12th minutes, saw the Bulls edge ahead 8-6.
"Lee started the game very strongly," Prescott said. "It was a ploy to attack down his side of the field, and obviously it paid dividends."
But after that initial burst of scoring by Canterbury, the Lions took control of the first spell.
"We were off the pace defensively and they scored a couple of long-range tries that sat us back on our heels," Prescott said.
"Then we regrouped a bit, but they were always in control. We got into catch-up mode and struggled to complete our sets and we forced passes and made errors."
The Lions scored four tries to the Bulls' three and stand-off half Steve Buckingham kicked 11 points, including a last-ditch field goal.
Down 18-8 at half time, the Bulls bounced back from conceding a try soon after the restart to score through fullback Lusi Sione, who started on the bench to rest a niggly hamstring strain. Sione got through the game without aggravating the injury and should be fit for the preliminary final.
Prescott said the Bulls showed more tenacity and effort in the second half which "was probably the positive we'll take out of it".
He could not fault the commitment of his starting and interchange props in hot, muggy conditions.
But Prescott admitted he may, in hindsight, have been "a bit reactive rather than proactive" in his preparations for the Lions.
"Regardless of who we play now for the rest of the season, we've got to concentrate on what we are doing.
"We just need to alter the balance a bit."
Scores: Auckland Lions 27 (David Fishiiai, Miguel Start, Paletasala Ale, Wayne McDade tries; Steve Buckingham 5 goals, field goal) Canterbury Bulls 14 (Lee Fidow 2, Lusi Sione tries; Scott Hurrell goal). HT: 18-8.