With their ranks depleted, the blue-and-golds built on their victory over NPC title-holders Wellington in a warm-up match last week, with a two tries to none victory over their northern rivals.
Solid defence was the key to their success as North Harbour could well have snatched a win in the last few minutes as they attempted to break out from their 22. But the home side's tackling held out and they threw their hands in the air as referee Gary Wise signalled no-side, indicating how much a first-up win in the competition meant to them.
North Harbour held the southerners to 7-6 at halftime through the kicking of Willie Walker, who slotted two penalties. Otago were persistent but only a well-executed movement broke through their opponents defence half-way through the first spell, culminating in a good try by Hayden Reid. The margin was too close for comfort but when North Harbour suffered some loose passing 12 minutes into the second spell, George Laupepe and Brendan Laney capitalised, the latter running three-quarters of the field to score in the corner.
Although this try made the difference in the end, North Harbour persisted in their attack. The margin was made up by two penalty goals by veteran Frano Botica, and with just under eight minutes to go, the 28,000 strong crowd realised Otago could lose.
Otago did attack but the game may well be remembered for the brave injury-time efforts of the North Harbour team who kept the ball inside as they attempted to rock the southern wall. To Otago's credit, they held out. Yet coach Laurie Mains would not want his team to allow an opponent another chance like that, if he can help it.
As a warm-up to the long-awaited Bledisloe Cup test on Saturday, the game was more hard grind than scintillating, and Otago appeared to be watching their movements carefully. Both teams had handling errors, always disconcerting to watch in top-level rugby, but on balance did themselves justice.
The ground was in good condition, although Carisbrook officials were particularly sensitive to any risk the turf would be cut up by half-time entertainment and celebrating spectators at the end.
The ground was over two-thirds full, with the famous Terraces well packed with students and visitors, including perennial sports follower Sonny Shaw.
Shaw risked life and limb supporting North Harbour, particularly during the second half, but emerged unscathed. With the first of the weekend double-header behind them, the rugby public of Dunedin made their way to the exits in varying degrees of sobriety. As a result, Carisbrook ground security was to be even more tough than usual for the test the following day.
A good night out, but plenty for both teams to work on. Every rugby fan hopes that NPC 2001 will be worthy of its claim as the best provincial rugby in the world, but as ever, that is in the hands of individual players around the country.