LIONS MUNCH LAMBS
NPC Rugby Final, Jade Stadium, CHCH, Saturday, OCtober 21,
Wellington Lions v Canterbury Lambs
Article: Mathew Loh
WELLINGTON celebrated a famous victory tonight when the Lions won their first NPC in 14-years with a stunning 34-29 victory over Ranfurly Shield holders Canterbury.
In a sensational 4 tries to two victory, Wellington demonstrated their class and earned a deserved championship trophy with firstly, an awesome display of attacking rugby to secure a commanding lead. And secondly, a ruthless defensive effort to survive a surging Canterbury comeback before rightfully emerging as New Zealand's No 1 provincial rugby team.
Led on to a seething Jade Stadium by their inspirational leader, Norm Hewitt, Wellington started the game on fire and thanks to the pin-point kicking of first five eighth David Holwell were soon leading 3-0.
This lead was extended inside the first ten minutes when Jason O'Halloran nudged a superb grubber, which bounced up for Jonah Lomu, who had outpaced his opposite Marikia Vunibaka, to score in the corner. The added Holwell conversion and minutes later a second penalty saw Wellington hold a 13-0 lead inside the first quarter.
Typical Wellington indiscipline was, however, soon taken advantage of by a recovering Canterbury XV and with Ben Blair his usual accurate self the Lions' lead was soon shortened to 13-6.
But, despite poor discipline, Wellington remained confident and continued to attack at every opportunity and this exciting play paid dividends when Christian Cullen nabbed a loose ball and shot across field at full pace, drawing a bevy of Red and Black tacklers, before off-loading a perfect inside-ball for barnstorming second-rower Inoke Afeaki to charge onto and over the line for a crucial Lions try.
A wonderful 50 metre plus penalty by Canterbury kingpin Andrew Mehrtens and another goal to Blair saw Wellington lead 20-12 at the break and the fans looked forward to another 40 minutes of exhillarating running rugby.
Blair's accurate kicking again featured early in the second half and Canterbury edged closer to trail 20-15.
However, perhaps, sensing it was now or never the Wellington XV seemed to explode into form and a blistering 80 metre move was finished off in style under the posts by an exultant O'Halloran to give the Lions an impressive 27-15 lead.
With Jade Stadium rocking to the chants of desperate Cantabrians, Wellington refused to sit on their laurels, after engineering O'Halloran's epic score, and in a fitting - and in hindsight matchwinning - moment the biggest Lion of all, Lomu, stampeded downfield, tossing Vunibaka aside, on route to his second try.
Holwell's conversion took Wellington to a 34-15 lead with 17 minutes of play remaining, but, the Lions knew they were in for rugged final quarter as the Ranfurly shield holders with Todd Blackadder in the pack are one team that never says die for one second of a full 80 minutes of rugby.
And so the inevitable Canterbury comeback began and as cream rises to the top so do quality rugby players and it was no suprise to see Mehrtens orchestrating his team's fight for glory.
Indeed, it was the All Black pivot himself who darted over for the first Canterbury try and then it was all on, when, with less then 10 minutes remaining the Red and Black's most famous son the All Black captain Blackadder, was driven over for a try which with the conversion saw the game go to the wire with Wellington leading 34-29.
Championships are built of character and with the minutes ticking down; reduced to 14 men with the sin-binning of the manic but certainly All Black-class lock Dion Waller; and holding out a world-beating Canterbury hammering their line; Wellington were forced to dig to the depths of their character reserves and by doing so and emerging victorious the Lions 2000 deserve every accolade as they go down in legend as the first NPC winner of the 21st century.
While credit is due the entire Lions squad and management, special mention has to go to the leadership and inspiration of the often forlorn Norm Hewitt who battled the highly rated Canterbury front-row to a standstill and ended the season holding the NPC trophy aloft.
Alongside Hewitt there were many heroes and while it is repetitive the loose-trio of Jerry Collins, Kupu Vanisi and Rodney So'oialo is, on-form, New Zealand's best and if not the provider of three immediate All Blacks it must certainly be the well on which New Zealand draws it's future loose-forward talent.
Waller and Inoke Afeaki also stepped up and were never bettered by their All Black rivals, Blackadder and Norm Maxwell. The front rowers of Hewitt, who deputised with ruthless effectiveness at loosehead for two scrums, Kevin Yates, Morne Van der Merwe and at times Mike Edwards and Shane Carter all performed above expectations and provided the foundation for the Lions win.
In the backs Cullen and Lomu were devastating; Holwell, Spice and O'Halloran all equalled or even bettered their All Black opposites while Tana Umaga again highlighted his obvious quality as the best rugby player in New Zealand.