But it could just as easily have gone the other way as Northland produced a spirited defence to embarrass the home side who enjoyed far greater territory and possession only to fail to make the most of their chances.
Having withstood a solid opening from the home team Northland struck first, after eight minutes, when right wing Jordan Hyland pounced on loose North Harbour ball and made ground. From the ruck, the play wasn’t the tidiest but first five-eighths Jack Debreczeni cleaned things up and took the ball to the line.
He managed a perfectly-timed offload for left wing, and always electric, Rene Ranger to work his magic beating defenders and then passing inside where lock Tom Robinson, who had a busy night, had rumbled down field in support to score by the posts.
Having suffered from some early campaign untidiness North Harbour found their way in the second quarter through their forward pack. A chargedown by flanker Glenn Preston of a Debreczeny clearing kick set the scene and then scrum power and lineout strength provided a try scoring chance.
Wing Matt Duffie chimed into a backline move off a lineout to set up a ruck just out from the goalline. Lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti drove just short and when the ball came back halfback Bryn Hall assessed the options and flung a long pass wide to the right where flanker Dillon Hunt, who demonstrated his ability throughout, was waiting to receive the ball and score.
Gatland was forced off the field early in the second half after a head knock and in his absence Shaun Stevenson moved from fullback to first five-eighths. And from a midfield breakdown penalty, he kicked the ball to touch, saw the forwards put their maul to use before they released the ball.
It was moved to midfield and then Stevenson took a gap on the blindside with aplomb and provided wing Tevita Li with the perfect finishing chance. Hall took on the goal-kicking duties and landed a sideline conversion.
But when a chance was gained to build their lead after Robinson was sin-binned for a cynical play, North Harbour muffed their lineout on the Northland line and as the Taniwha cleared the ball from their line, a comedy of North Harbour errors saw the ball right back downfield into their 22m area. Northland scored 10 points in his absence to none by the home side.
Replacements made a big impact for Northland with loose forward Matt Matich very competitive and replacement halfback Jono Kitto marking his arrival by sniffing half a chance around a ruck to race through some ineffectual tackling to score to get his side back to 17-18 down.
Debreczeni missed a 45m penalty attempt that would have given his side the lead but a minute later a deliberate block by replacement prop Mike Tamoaieta on Northland fullback Matt Wright, gave Debreczeny an easier chance and he made no mistake. But Gatland was given the final chance and took it.
Northland could feel unlucky but their spirit offered plenty of hope of another competitive season in the Championship.
Scorers: North Harbour 21 (Dillon Hunt, Tevita Li tries; Bryn Gatland 3 pen; Bryn Hall con) Northland 20 (Tom Robinson, Jono Kitto tries; Jack Debreczeni 2 con, 2 pen). HT: 11-7