NPC Round Robin, and Ranfurly Shield defense
2:35pm, 29th Sept, 2001
Referee: Steve Walsh (jnr)
Final Score: Canterbury 31 : Wellington 29
Look I know it's a great script for a game but we have just had too many matches like this in recent years, I think it's starting to take a toll on my health!
The way this game developed was so similar to last years NPC final (but with a different ending!), and the recent Tri-Nations loss to the Wallabies, where one team is holding onto a slim lead at the death, while the other one hammers away at their line. These situations always make for classic rugby games but they also guarentee the one set of supporters is going to go from ecstasy to agony in an instant, and leave the match with a very hollow feeling while the other side just has a massive feeling of relief!
That was just how this game ended, with the capacity crowd at Jade stadium all letting out a collective sigh as Ben Blair scampered over to tie the match in injury time and make the shield safe, and then with the pressure off, let out a huge roar of approval as Blair slotted the tricky conversion to take the win!
When I took a look at the stats this morning I realised that Canterbury really deserved to win due to the overwhelming possession and territorial advantage that they had but at the time I just felt like we used our last Get Out of Jail Free card, and thank god we had one!
Before the match I was pretty nervous about our chances. Wellington had beaten us in our three previous encounters, including the heart-breaking NPC final at Jade last year, and it seemed to be that the big three of Cullen, Lomu and Umaga always have big games against us. (Maybe it's just that at NPC level the class of these guys means they always have big games, but I pay more attention when they are playing us!)
A good mate of mine, Hamish, was down from Wellington, and he was talking down their chances of taking the log of wood back home, but somehow that didn't help me feel any more confident!
It was a beautiful spring day, and Jade stadium was packed, and not just with Red and Black supporters either, there was a great turnout of Wellington supporters too, who were made all the more obvious due to their bouyant mood from the all very vocal from the 11th minute (when they took the lead) through to the 81st, where they lost it, and the game!
Canterbury started the game strongly, with their first couple of raids into Wellington territory resulting in six points, but when Wellington counter-attacked like only they can (through Lome Fa'atau down the right wing) and took the lead the Canterbury supporters and players all seemed to lose their composure.
Canterbury continued to dominate posession (especially in the scrums where the Wellington pack got smashed) but the Wellington defence stood strong and forced handling errors and poor passes at critical times from the Cantabs.
One such pass resulted in Lome Fa'atau scoring his second long-range try, which gave Wellington the 14-9 half-time lead, a scoreline that I was pretty happy with as we were still in touch and in the big games we normally finish strong.
I wasn't nearly so happy with the two quick tries that Wellington scored early in the second spell though!
They were both crackers, with Umaga brushing aside Mehrts to set up Cullen for the first one after only a minute of play, and then Cullen again involved to set up Steinmetz for another great try in the same corner 5 minutes later!
The second try was immediately after another try in the same corner (which seemed legit on the replay) to Lome Fa'atau was ruled as taking out the corner flag before it was grounded by the touch-judge.
This gave Wellington a healthy 26-9, 17 point lead, which by maintained the 50th minute mark at 29-12 when Blair and Holwell exchanged penalties.
The last 30 minutes was to be a classic Canterbury comeback though.
Unlike in the first half Canterbury managed to maintain possession for long periods of time, forcing the Wellington defenders to give away defensive penalties in order to try and slow down the assault. In this situation the defense almost always gives out eventually, and when you lose a man to the bin for repeat infringements like Wellington did (twice in the last 30 minutes) you are pretty much guarenteed to give away some points.
The three tries Canterbury scored were all a result of continual pressure inside the Wellington 22, and as Hamish noted Christian Cullen has to take some of the blame for letting the Canterbury kickers keep Wellington camped down there. On more than one occasion Cully was very casual about getting across to retrieve a Canterbury kick, allowing the kick chasers for Canterbury to put a lot of pressure on his clearance kicks, resulting in more posession and territory for the Red and Blacks which ultimately proved so costly.
Stand-out players for me were: Lome Fa'atau, Tana Umaga and David Holwell for the Lions, and Scott Robertson (who outplayed his opposite No. 8 Jerry Collins) and Caleb Ralph for Canterbury. While not standout's I thought Mehrts and Marshall played solid games, especially with their tactical kicking in the second half, and in regathering the attack when it was shut down by aggresive Wellington D.
It's hard to pick any bad performances in the game though, every man on the field gave 100% for the cause.
In my mind this was going to be our biggest shield defense this season, and I still feel that way, but we can't underestimate a rampant Taranaki next week, and assuming we survive that we have a wounded Auckland, and then close out the round-robin with the unpredicatable Waikato.
Ah what a way to end the season! Will my heart stand up to this!?!