The injury-time loss after Wellington had gained a bonus point and a strong lead against their old foes would have made generations of Wellington supporters sink their heads in despair. The yellow-and-blacks blew arguably their best chance to take the Ranfurly Shield since Wayne Smith's intercept try at Athletic Park in 1982. It is not a good season to support the All Blacks and Wellington representative rugby teams.
Canterbury lived up to their proud tradition of never saying die and thoroughly deserved their win. It ensured a thriller of a game for the thousands who packed into the still-to-be-completely refurbished Jade Stadium.
This correspondent threw practically all caution to the winds (like Wellington's defence) in the last few minutes, watching with a group of rugby enthusiasts of all persuasions, openly anxious about Wellington's ability to hold off the red-and-blacks and yelling passionately and gesticulating wildly at the screen that they, please, somehow, someway, find it within themselves to defend their line. It may have meant a few sideways looks, it may have looked positively insane, but this correspondent was beyond caring, whatever the social consequences. The stakes were so high for Wellington, possibly even higher than the NPC final last year. The lure of the Log 'o' Wood is such that reasoned reaction and standing on one's dignity was impossible.
In the event, none of this correspondent's desperate, almost pathetic appeals to the Lions worked. When Canterbury crossed for the winning try several minutes into injury time, it would be nice to say it was a surprise. In fact, it seemed almost inevitable, a tragedy that even in today's world climate would produce nothing but mass drowning of sorrows throughout the capital and its sympathisers, in whatever form one could lay hands upon. For this correspondent, it meant attending a "Sing-a-long Sound of Music" in Dunedin's Regent Theatre dressed in walk shorts and braces (among other clothing items) and singing everything from "Do-Re-Mi" through to "Climb Every Mountain" (ironic in the circumstances, perhaps?) with the Von Trapp family singers and friends. Losing a vital Ranfurly Shield game can unhinge some people like that, fellow Rugbyheads. After the rugby, it was positively enjoyable!
Two penalties to Canterbury gave them an early lead in the game, before Lome Fa'atua's first converted try, his kick over the top and personal judgement combining with a good bounce of the ball to take him in. His second try also showed good personal judgement and with the conversion, Wellington, the challengers were up 14-6. A further penalty to Canterbury made it 14-9 at halftime.
Wellington at times looked a bit loose, but their attacking play was really combining, even at times against the run of play. Christian Cullen's converted try and Paul Steinmetz's after that were immensely satisfying, particularly after a possible Wellington try was denied.
The often-unthinkable had happened: Wellington had a handy lead and a bonus point against a top team in the NPC. A penalty each to both sides meant that Wellington now had a 17-point advantage and a flicker of hope now stirred within even the most hardened of Wellington supporters.
And so Canterbury responded, like the great team they are, squashing this flickering ember of capital city hope. Scott Robertson and Nathan Mauger's tries made the game at 29-24 too close to call, particularly after the comebacks the Wallabies have staged against the All Blacks over the past two seasons.
Having seen too many of these sorts of games in recent times, this correspondent knew the prospects were increasingly desperate. Others in the same room, (including Canterbury fans) with perhaps a slightly more balanced approach to life, stayed relatively quiet. Perhaps it's a lesson in rugby psychology? Maybe on the field, Canterbury could sense Wellington losing their grip?
Certainly, in the last few minutes of the game, Wellington conceded a terrific number of penalties. Whatever their merits, desperation tactics were perhaps coming to the fore for the challengers. The refereeing of Steve Walsh jun has been scrutinised minutely during and since the match, but one vital factor remains in considering the result: Canterbury's persistence.
A cool, calm and collected approach to the situation was definitely called for and the home side responded. The looks on the Canterbury side told the story: "We shall keep our heads and pass their line". And so Ben Blair did, zipping around Wellington's defence and crossing the line three minutes into injury time, his try levelling it up at 29-all, with the kick to come. He was mobbed physically by his teammates and in spirit by thousands of Canterbury fans at Jade Stadium and those listening and watching around the country. The Shield was safe. Wellingtonian thoughts meanwhile, were unprintable, at least for this correspondent!
Blair stepped forward and with a deceptive grace, kicked the goal to win the match 31-29. It was over, day was done and nothing can change one of the great comebacks in Ranfurly Shield history. The fact that Canterbury have consolidated their placing in the NPC first division was just more salt in Wellington's wounds, but let there be no mistake: it was a great spectacle of a game and Canterbury fully deserve congratulations for emerging victorious.
The Wellington team after a mixed season (putting it mildly) looked to be coming right after their win over Northland last weekend. But everyone knew a Shield challenge was another story and it had to be asked whether the Lions had started their rise too late.
As it turned out, Wellington's timing was just about right. Their overall play, backs and forwards alike, was quite impressive. At their best, Wellington played like the defending NPC champions they are. But at its worst, it was soul-destroying. Like the All Blacks, they seemed unable to hold their lead when it most counted.
To be fair, had Wellington bundled Ben Blair into touch during that last movement, the capital would now have been arranging a parade down Lambton Quay and Willis Street, followed by a mayoral reception in Civic Square. Rugby can be like that sometimes, unfortunately.
To sum up then, Cantabrian commitment and Wellington's easing off the pressure cost the capital this game in the most excruciating way possible. Whether they can rise above this loss, it can be hard to say. They have the players and the ability to beat any side in the country.
But after Saturday's game, it will take a lot of heart to play with any similar passion again. Here's hoping they do, though. Wellington rugby supporters need it, particularly this one.