Rugby: Lions hand coach winning start

Wellington 26
Waikato 14

Daniel Ramsay breaks the tackle of Waikato's Brendon Leonard during Wellington's win last night. Photo / Getty Images
Daniel Ramsay breaks the tackle of Waikato's Brendon Leonard during Wellington's win last night. Photo / Getty Images

It was the start of a new regime in Wellington last night but it resulted in a familiar tale.

Andre Bell took charge of the Lions for the first time this season, taking over from good mate Jamie Joseph who is the latest in a long line hoping to re-ignite the Highlanders, and would have been relieved to open his account early.

It also consigned the visitors to another defeat in the capital. It has been eight years since Waikato have tasted victory at the Cake Tin. They have had sides good enough to win there, including last night's line-up, but haven't prevailed.

They couldn't even blame the wind, or the rain, or the referee, or anything. They just weren't good enough on the night and are now in the uncomfortable position of being midtable after four games.

There's still a long way to go in this year's competition but pressure mounts with so much at stake.

Neither side has looked totally assured this season. Wellington were among the pre-season favourites and, while they have won three of their four games and sit near the top of the table, haven't really clicked yet.

Under Joseph, they struggled to get out of the blocks. They trailed both Tasman and Otago early before recovering but, most alarmingly, gave Counties Manukau a 17-0 headstart.

Bell demanded a better opening from his troops and got it. Nothing like trying to impress the new boss.

Wellington trailed 9-6 after 30 minutes but Julian Savea fended off Trent Renata and blitzed the cover defence with his pace over 40m to race away for the game's opening try. The young wing who was the star of New Zealand's triumphant junior world championship campaign this year has had a good start to this year's ITM Cup and looks to have a bright future.

Lock Daniel Ramsay followed him over soon after, when he scooped up a Faifili Levave offload, to give the home side a 16-9 halftime lead.

It was the least they deserved. They dominated territory and especially possession and kept chipping away at the Waikato line. It was inevitable cracks would appear.

Waikato upped the tempo and intensity early in the second spell, clearly fired into action by coach Chris Gibbes, and flanker Jack Lam rumbled over from a pick and drive soon after the restart.

It was supposed to be the start in a change of fortunes but served only to snap Wellington out of a temporary malaise.

They attacked the line with pace, often expertly set up by the maturing Alby Mathewson, and Dane Coles scored a crucial try when he burst on to a short ball from the halfback.

Mathewson is clearly the No 3 halfback in the country now, and combines a snappy pass with intelligence around the ruck. He overshadowed his opposite Brendon Leonard to emphasise his standing in the pecking order.

Together with a Fa'atonu Fili penalty that extended the lead to 26-14, it gave them some wriggle room. Waikato mounted their expected surge but made crucial errors at inopportune moments.

They went wide, they kept it close, but struggled to penetrate. They came close when replacement Tim Mikkelson thought he had scored but a foot went into touch and Hosea Gear pulled off a massive hit on Lam when Waikato seemed certain to score.

All of this would have pleased Bell. There is still a lot for Wellington to work on, as rugby players like to say, but it's always nice to notch a first win early.

Wellington 26 (J. Savea, D. Ramsay, D. Coles tries, F. Fili 2 pens, dg, con) Waikato 14 (J. Lam try; T. Renata 3 pens). Halftime: 16-9.

- Herald on Sunday

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