One big name is a glaring omission while another headline grabber is in danger of not living up to the hype as the national provincial rugby play-offs were finally clarified today.

Auckland, unbeatable last season, was ultimately the biggest loser in the aftermath of a tense and unpredictable final round of the Air NZ Cup’s regular season.

Barely three weeks after meekly handing over the Ranfurly Shield, the defending provincial champions can redirect the Air NZ Cup as well after Northland staged a stirring comeback to secure just their second NPC-era victory on Eden Park.

The born-again Taniwha’s 21-13 triumph was not enough to prolong their season but Ash Moeke’s last-minute penalty denied Auckland a bonus point that would have seen them scrape into eighth place.

Moeke, ironically a first five-eighth loaned out by Auckland, delivered the killer blow, though in keeping with the remainder of their shonky title defence the damage was also self-inflicted.

Well within range of scoring a season-extending try in the final 10 minutes, Auckland bombed opportunities last year’s team would have finished with aplomb.

Northland, at risk of top flight exile three weeks ago, ended on a three-match winning streak and also has an opening round upset of Waikato and a narrow loss to Canterbury to look back fondly on.

Auckland, who finished an ignominious 11th, must focus on rebuilding with coach Shane Howarth now focusing on a potentially troubled Super 14 campaign with the Blues.

Auckland’s final hiccup allowed Taranaki to finish eighth — thanks to the two bonus points they garnered from a 41-45 loss to Waikato on Thursday night.

Their reward is a Saturday evening quarterfinal in Wellington, perhaps not as daunting an assignment as it may have looked a month ago.

Wellington’s decline is not yet as dramatic as Auckland but there are signs the tremors prompted by Tasman’s bold Shield challenge may be developing into fault lines.

The top qualifiers’ goal of ending the season unbeaten ended at Carisbrook last night when an Otago, side pilloried by their departing captain in the lead-up, orchestrated a 36-21 upset.

Otago were already out of the quarterfinal mix but at least managed to give a frustrated Craig Newby an appropriate send off after seven years toil.

The England-bound Newby was an integral part of Otago’s consolation win, though the province’s current All Black loosie Adam Thomson proved a crucial point of difference with two tries and some sterling snaffling work on the ground.

Wellington admittedly had the luxury of resting stars Cory Jane, Hosea Gear and Piri Weepu — but a loss of momentum could be the unpalatable side-effect.

Momentum is one commodity Canterbury are blessed with — on the scoreboard at least — after they recorded their ninth consecutive win, 25-6 over Southland in Invercargill on Friday night.

Again Canterbury looked far from fluent but they did enough to suggest Tasman’s visit on Friday night for the first quarterfinal may be an exercise in futility though they shrugged off their Shield despair with a comprehensive 36-7 win in Manawatu.

Canterbury’s main personnel concern is former All Blacks No 8 Mose Tuiali’i, who was concussed and wrenched his neck when colliding with teammate Isaac Ross at a lineout.

Southland’s inability to secure home advantage means they travel to Mt Maunganui for a second time in three weeks to confront a Bay of Plenty side stung by their comprehensive 12-46 reversal in Napier on Friday night.

The Steamers won the first match 24-22 but will take little confidence from their mauling by Hawke’s Bay.

Last year’s beaten semifinalists are tracking for the same stage again after drawing Waikato — a team they have beaten in their last three meetings, including last’s season’s quarters.

North Harbour joined Otago in the better-late-than-never club, farewelling coach Wayne Pivac with a 57-28 demolition of Counties-Manukau — an inconsequential contest notable for captain Jimmy Gopperth’s 27-point haul, the highest individual contribution of the season.