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Wellington Lions hoping to shake runners-up tag in Saturday’s NPC final

Wellington Lions 2000.

The Wellington Lions will be hoping to party like its 2000 on Saturday night – the year they won the National Provincial Championship major title for the first and only time in the ‘playoffs’ era.

2000 was their fourth success, having won in 1978, 1981 (also doing the NPC-Ranfurly Shield double) and 1986, prior to the semi-finals/final format being introduced in the early 1990s.

Wellington’s first final in this period was 1999 and their most recent was in 2019, losing eight of these. Brief accounts of all these finals are documented below.

1999: Wellington: 18 v Auckland: 24

The first decider Wellington contested was at Eden Park on October 23, 1999.

The first-half was a tough and error-ridden affair and both teams failed to score a try. Auckland took a 9-3 lead to the sheds with the Lions attacking vigorously just before the interval.

In the 48th minute Orene Ai’i jabbed an attacking kick into the Wellington 22 which was fumbled by Johnsonville’s Ali Koko leading to a Caleb Ralph try. All Black lock Charles Riechelmann extended the hosts advantage to 24-6 after an hour.

Wellington rallied admirably. David Howell scored a converted try to reduce the deficit to 24-13 and No.8 Filo Tiatia powered over with three minutes to go to spark hopes of an improbable revival, but it wasn’t to be.

Adrian Cashmore kicked four penalties and a conversion for Auckland.

2000: Wellington: 34 v Canterbury: 29

Wellington won the NPC for the first time since 1986 with a thrilling victory at a sold out Lancaster Park.

Wellington’s backs were rampant scoring five unanswered tries to build a 34-15 lead.

Two long-range tries to Jonah Lomu were especially memorable. Lomu’s second try saw him fend-off Fijian international Marika Vunibaka three times on his way to the line from halfway.

All Black first-five Andrew Mehrtens kicked five penalties to keep the hosts in touch, who soon predictability rallied scoring two converted tries to set up a grandstand finish.

In the dying minutes Wellington lock Dion Waller was yellow carded for slapping the ball down when Canterbury looked certain to score a try, but the Lions hung on grimly.

Tragically Lomu, Jerry Collins and prop Morne van der Merwe have already passed.

Captain Norm Hewitt heroically played the last quarter with a broken arm, an action criticised by MP and disabilities spokeswoman Ruth Dyson on the Paul Holmes show. Ironically Dyson would resign a short time later when she was caught drunk driving.

2003: Wellington: 29 v Auckland: 41

Queues extended out Lambton Quay shop doors to purchase tickets to the first NPC final at Wellington Stadium and for Christian Cullen’s last game.

Cullen didn’t disappoint, scoring two tries, including one from a quick tap on halftime. But Auckland was always the superior team in an entertaining contest.

Ahead 19-17 at halftime, Auckland scored two tries in the first eight minutes upon the resumption to amass an advantage that was too large for the hosts to overcome.

New Zealand Sevens legend Orene Ai’i scored two of Auckland’s six tries.

In 2003, Auckland also held the Ranfurly Shield while the Blues were reigning Super 12 champions.

2004: Wellington: 27 v Canterbury: 40

Wellington Stadium was packed to the gunnel for this final against the old rival. And why wouldn’t it be? The Lions were top qualifier and had enjoyed some memorable home wins over Taranaki, Northland and Waikato (twice) amongst others. New players such as Piri Weepu and Conrad Smith were making their marks.

Enter Canterbury, with a gnarly side that was led by first-year Canterbury captain Richie McCaw and Justin Marshall.

In typical Canterbury fashion, the red and blacks turned the screws on the Lions. McCaw went down early in the second half in a crashing tackle but got up to play well and Marshall scored two tries in a Player of the Match performance. Also to standout was All Blacks pivot Dan Carter who kicked four penalties and four conversions in the win. Canterbury led 40-13 at one point early in the second half.

2006: Wellington: 31 v Waikato: 37

The Lions travelled to Hamilton on a cool, clear night confident of victory having defeated Canterbury and defending champions Auckland (twice) during the regular season.

However Waikato’s pack proved too tough in front of a rabid home crowd. The Lions set-piece was inaccurate and Waikato was ahead 37-24 with five minutes to play.

Ma’a Nonu did score a second try to close the gap to 37-31 and provide faint late hope, but it wasn’t to be.

It was a great night for the goal-kickers with Jimmy Gopperth slotting four penalties and two conversions and David Hill responding with three penalties and four conversions.

Waikato All Blacks Richard Kahui, Byron Kelleher and Brendon Leonard scored tries for Waikato.
2007: Wellington: 14 v Auckland: 23

On a wet and cold night at Eden Park, Auckland won with a tough victory in a forgettable spectacle.

Jeremy Thrush scored a thrilling try, fending and hurdling over several players on his way to the line, but Auckland used the conditions better and were worthy winners. Fijian international Isa Nacewa scored 18 points, including a try, for Auckland. Jimmy Gopperth kicked three penalties for Wellington in a match that featured plenty of whistle.

2008: Wellington: 6 v Canterbury: 7

Wellington entered the final with an outstanding record. The Lions won 12 out of 13 games, held the Ranfurly Shield, and scored 62 tries. However, on a miserably wet and cold night, and in front of a slightly disappointing crowd of just over 21,000, the hosts came unstuck against Canterbury.

The solitary try scored in the match was by Canterbury blindside flanker Hayden Hopgood, converted by first five-eighth Colin Slade. Hopgood busted through at the 22 and skidded over the line on the sloshy surface. Lions first five-eighth Piri Weepu kicked two penalties, but missed four other attempts as the Lions made much of the play and created several clear-cut opportunities but were unable to break down the dogged Canterbury defence.

Hayden Hopgood had a stint with the Hurricanes and later played 10 tests for Japan

2009: Wellington: 20 v Canterbury: 28

Wellington’s misery against Canterbury continued. After a nail-bitting 16-15 defence of the Ranfurly Shield against Auckland, the Log was lost against Canterbury, 36-14.

Wellington used 48 players in a disruptive season, but still managed to battle into the final where they were no match for Canterbury.

Canterbury used the wind to good effect, controlled territory and bustled the Wellington set-piece as they defended their title from 2008.

Canterbury first-five Colin Slade was man of the match scored two tries while Scottish international Sean Maitland also helped himself to a five-pointer.

Alapati Leiua scored a brilliant solo try in the last ten minutes after openside Scott Fuglistaller had initially helped Wellington into a promising position.

2013: Wellington: 13 v Canterbury: 29

Wellington qualified top and beat Canterbury 25-19 in the round robin, but were thoroughly outclassed at home by a clinical Canterbury. Wellington struggled to adapt to the chilly, soggy conditions and were gradually strangled into submission in front of 15,070 onlookers.

Both sides scored a try apiece in the first half and the Lions led 10-7 at the break, but Canterbury won the game in the third quarter by scoring tries to five-eighths Ryan Crotty and Tyler Bleyendaal. Penalties were exchanged and Canterbury took a 22-13 lead into the final 10 minutes, which proved too great for the Lions to come back from. Canterbury won their sixth straight NPC title and All Blacks Andy Ellis and George Whitelock also scored tries.

2019: Wellington Lions 14 v Tasman Mako 31

Tasman went the entire season undefeated and hung on despite a brave old effort from Wellington in an entertaining final. Wellington were left wondering what might have been, after conceding two tries straight from Tasman restarts, while also missing a couple of kickable penalties.

They were also denied a try after a slight Vince Aso knock on, and unable to break free through Tasman’s defence in the second half after Tasman had led 23-14 at halftime. Prop Alex Fidow was Wellington’s try-scorer in the final in Nelson.

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