You can sense the frustration among the Counties Manukau players.

Imagine being their fans. Last night the Steelers surrendered a late 27-18 lead to be pipped 28-27 by the Wellington Lions in Pukekohe, handing the inaugural Jonah Lomu Memorial Trophy to the capital boys, which they will keep for at least a year until the next meeting.

That defeat sees them slip to fourth in the Premiership with a 2-2 record, but having lost two games to Championship sides. Should Tasman win well this afternoon against Otago, they may well slip to fifth. But just as significantly, it continues some maddeningly inconsistent form and follows easily their best 80 minute display of the season, the 48-20 pumping of Hawke's Bay.

In their last outing in Pukekohe, the Steelers clocked off early and allowed Bay of Plenty to storm back and almost clinch the result. Last night they had no early ball and territory, before pouring on the intensity, led by two tries to fullback Luteru Laulala, and a close range try to Kalolo Tuiloma, and then buttoned off in the clutch.


"For us, it's about putting out that complete, 80 minute performance rather than being in it for 20. It's about having that consistent game," says captain Jimmy Tupou. Easier said than done, Jimmy.

"I felt we were defending the whole first half, we didn't have much pill, but we turned things around in the second, got a few points and backed ourselves up front. But I guess our discipline let us down in the end."

It did, though referee Glen Jackson, in his first Mitre 10 Cup under the new breakdown rules, heavily pinged both sides in a stop-start contest. The final penalty was for an unspecified breakdown infringement and Jackson Garden-Bachop, who had earlier duffed at least two penalty goal attempts, nailed the 48m winner to the delight of the Wellington squad, who had been hearing all week how Lomu was a Counties man through and through.

"Jonah's done so much for Counties rugby and rugby as a whole. I thought we prepared really well. The good thing is that it's up for grabs in the future," Tupou says.

For a time it looked like the decision to have the Steelers wearing the old school 1990 jerseys was an inspired one. The fairytale would have been Sherwin Stowers scoring the first, or winning, try. But fairytales do not always come true. Lomu's family, several of whom were on hand, would understand that.

There is little time for the Steelers to brood. On Wednesday night Taranaki come to Pukekohe, and they will give no quarter in the pack.

"Our priority is recovery, not so much on the field. It's more of a mental week for us, so we'll be excited to get in front of our fans again on Wednesday night," says Tupou.

We will see which Steelers team turns up.