Canterbury survived a late fightback from Wellington to defend their Air NZ Cup crown with a thrilling 28-20 win in Christchurch.
Canterbury survived a late fightback from Wellington to defend their Air New Zealand Cup crown with a thrilling 28-20 win in Christchurch on Saturday.
It was a deserving win for the defending champions and a brave effort from the Lions, whose dismal record in their search for that elusive title continued after losing their fourth final in a row.
It was always going to be a daunting case of playing catch-up rugby for the visitors after the hosts stormed into an unassailable 18-3 lead at half-time, thanks to a brace of tries to full-back Colin Slade.
With fly-half Stepehn Brett – in good form with the boot – converting one and slotting two penalties, a lethargic Wellington were left with a mountain to climb.
The match seemed destined for a repeat of last week's semi-final between Canterbury and Hawke's Bay (won 20-3 by the red and blacks), as Wellington – like the Magpies – were left hanging on the ropes at the break.
But an intercept try to centre Alapati Leuia midway through the second half and a late touchdown to replacement Scott Fuglistaller brought the Lions back into the match, setting up a nail-biting finish that so nearly ended in Wellington's favour.
However the damage was already done thanks to that man Slade who may have made New Zealand coach Graham Henry regret the decision to leave him behind on the All Blacks end-of-year tour.
Slade was outstanding in the first half — he took every high bomb Wellington sent in his direction and was always an option for the man with the ball in free play.
His first try came when a promising Wellington attack sparked by wing David Smith was snuffed out in a turnover and lock Sam Whitelock found the full-back at his shoulder.
Slade easily galloped 60 metres unchallenged for the opening score.
The second try came when the ball sped across the backline from a line-out and hit Slade as he chimed in at pace to beat the defence from close range.
Weepu, with two inexperienced midfielders in Shaun Treeby and Alapati Leuia, outside him was unable to find any gaps to exploit and the ball rarely reached his wings. Smith was busy, but Hosea Gear never got into the game.
With an ample supply of ammunition, Canterbury's backs – celebrating centre Casey Laulala's final match before joining Cardiff Blues in Wales – ran with panache throughout the game.
Wellington came out with more intensity for the second half as they chased the scoreboard.
Wellington coach Jamie Joseph sent on hard running Dane Coles for hooker Ged Robinson, Fa'atonu Fili for full-back Apoua Stewart and Fuglistaller for number eight Mathew Luamanu early in the second half.
The trio added some much needed spark as Wellington abandoned the kicking game and proved more of a threat with ball in hand. When Leuia ghosted into the Canterbury backline for an intercept try in the 54th minute, it gave the Lions a much-needed lift.
But Canterbury's reply was eloquently delivered by wing Sean Maitland in the 60th minute, finishing off an elegant 40 metre run that left three tacklers for dead for an unconverted try.
Aided by the sin-binning of Slade in the 66th minute after killing the ball on the ground, Wellington scored a penalty off Weepu and then a converted try by Fuglistaller.
But the Canterbury defence held a desperate Wellington out as the time ticked down and Brett sealed the triumph with a 77th minute penalty.
Tries: Slade 2, Maitland
Cons: Brett 2
Pens: Brett 3
Tries: Leuia, Fuglistaller
Cons: Weepu 2
Pens: Weepu 2
Yellow card: Slade (Canterbury, 66min)
Canterbury: 15 Colin Slade, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Tu Umaga-Marshall, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 George Whitelock (c), 6 Michael Paterson, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Peter Borlase, 2 Ti'i Paulo, 1 Andrew Olorenshaw.
Replacements: 16 Steve Fualau, 17 Rodney Ah You, 18 Ash Parker, 19 Matt Todd, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Ryan Crotty, 22 James Paterson
Wellington: 15 Apoua Stewart, 14 David Smith, 13 Alapati Leuia, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Piri Weepu, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Mathew Luamanu, 7 Serge Lilo, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Daniel Ramsay, 4 Jacob Ellison (c), 3 Anthony Perenise, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Arden David-Perrot, 18 Mark Reddish, 19 Scott Fuglistaller, 20 Fa'atonu Fili, 21 Robert Fruean, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick.
Date: Saturday, November 7
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Vinny Munro
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock, Jonathon White
TMO: Keith Brown