Above: Kemara Hauiti-Parapara and the Lions scrum will need to fire up when they play Canterbury this coming weekend. PHOTO: Hugh Pretorius.
Since 1992, when the present finals format was introduced into the National Provincial Championship, Wellington has played in a number of Semi-finals. Here’s a look back at five of those wins:
2000 v Auckland at Eden Park. Won 48-23
2000 will be remembered as the year that the Wellington Lions finally broke their title duck, winning their first and only title thus far of the professional era. The 34-29 final win over Canterbury will always be remembered as one of the great finals with Jonah Lomu scoring two tries and captain Norm Hewitt breaking his arm but playing on. A week before they played brilliantly in their semi-final to sweep aside Auckland. The Lions had misfired in the early stages of their campaign, but flicked a switch and took some big round-robin wins over Counties Manukau, North Harbour and Waikato. The outside backs came out to play against Auckland, with Christian Cullen (2), Brad Fleming, Tana Umaga all crossing the chalk in an irresistible win. The 2000 season also saw the rising of young loose forwards Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo who both played key roles in the semi-final win over Auckland.
2003: v Waikato in Hamilton. Won 30-29
Youthful exuberance carried the Lions to a thrilling win over Waikato. New coaches John Plumtree and Chris Boyd led a Lions side whose aveage age in the forwards was just 22. The young Lions earned a first ever home final at Westpac Stadium after Auckland upset top qualifier Otago in the other semi-final. The odds were stacked against Wellington, who had been beaten up front by Waikato in their previous meeting in the round-robin, while Hamilton had been a graveyard for visting Wellington teams who had lost five straight there. But Wellington took the game to Waikato, second five-eighth Paul Steinmetz, loose forward-turned wing Roy Kinikinilau and flanker Scott Waldrom all prominent. Waikato wing Filimoni Bolavacu nearly broke Wellington hearts with 10 minutes to play, scooping up a loose pass and racing 60 metres to score. That closed the deficit to just a point but first five-eighth David Hill’s conversion missed. The Lions fell to Auckland 29-41 in the final, Irish-bound superstar fullback Christian Cullen scoring two tries.
2007: v Canterbury in Christchurch. Won 26-21
The odds were firmly in the home team’s favour heading into this semi-final with Wellington not having won at Christchurch in seven years – their last Jade Stadium victory being the 2000 final. Canterbury had also beaten Wellington 41-23 in round-robin play. However, both had near-identical points scoring records from the season. Wellington had scored 354 points and Canterbury 351. Wellington had beaten Southland 45-3 in their quarterfinal and Canterbury had overcome Otago 44-6. Wellington came out fizzing, No. 8 Thomas Waldrom on fire and midfielder Tane Tu’ipulotu scoring two tries. In so doing, Wellington produced a near flawless first half, first five-eighth Jimmy Gopperth kicking three penalties and Tu’ipulotu grabbing a first half brace including an 80-metre intercept try when Canterbury hooker Corey Flynn dropped the ball on Wellington’s 22. The Lions led 23-3 at halftime. Canterbury came back, but the damage had been done.
2008: v Southland in Wellington. Won 28-19
History says that the Lions were once again bridesmaids, losing 6-7 to Canterbury the following week at Westpac Stadium. But 2008 was one of the most successful seasons in Wellington rugby, piling on the points and creating a new single season record of 11 wins – not to mention the small matter of them winning the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland just a few weeks prior to this semi-final over Southland. This match was also the Hosea Gear show, the champion wing scoring this 13th and 14th tries of the season to see him ellipse former great Bernie Fraser’s 27-season record of 12 tries in a single season for Wellington. The Lions had to come back from an 11-14 deficit late in the first half, Gear slicing through for two tries and then playing a leading hand in the clincher scored by Conrad Smith five minutes from fulltime.
2013: v Counties Manukau in Wellington. Won 41-10
Wellington won the battle up front and reaped the rewards out wide to rout the Steelers in this semi-final that was expected to be much closer.Frae Wilson, Alapati Leiua (2), Shaun Treeby, Faifili Levave and Ambrose Curtis all scored tries off the back of some solid work by the Lions’ pack, led by Ardie Savea and Jeff Toomaga-Allen who made amends for a poor loss the week before against Hawke’s Bay. Trailing 15-0 at the break, Counties coach Tana Umaga looked to improve his side’s chances by changing his front row. And when captain Fritz Lee cut the deficit to 10 with his with his try shortly after it looked to have worked. But this was home team Wellington’s night and they piled on 26 unanswered points to secure a home final against Canterbury.