Dare to dream, North Harbour.
Despite coming second in most of the stats, the visitors won a thrilling Mitre 10 Championship semifinal in the capital today and will now play Otago in Dunedin on Friday for the title and promotion to the Premiership in 2017.
It will be Harbour's first final since the fractious 1994 Battle of Onewa and they will have a crack at their first XVs provincial crown since the 1987 NPC second division, in the days prior to playoffs football. Not only that, but Harbour arrested a decade-long losing streak against Wellington.
"They're a special bunch. To come out with a win down here is a special feeling. We wanted to attack the game, and let them back in for periods, but they rolled their sleeves up when they had to," said Harbour coach Steve Jackson, who has engineered six wins this season, and 12 in all during his three-year tenure which draws to an end after the final. From 2011-13, Harbour won just four games, a stark indication of how far this union has come under Jackson's guidance.
"Our forwards just wanted it more. We knew we had to match their physicality. Now we get to go down to Otago again and challenge them. Hopefully we can get the W and not the L this time," said Harbour lock and skipper Chris Vui.
Harbour started with real purpose but found it tough to maintain that intensity. In fact, by halftime, they must have wondered why they were in the lead after missing 20 tackles. But they fell off just three more, No 10 Bryn Gatland kicked almost all his goals, and the pack edged the Lions for intensity in the second spell.
Wing Tevita Li had a topsy-turvy day, scoring one try, setting up Daniel Hilton-Jones and butchering one when he dropped a sitter with the line open. Flanker Glenn Preston, one of several workhorses, busted through for a try right on halftime and prop Nic Mayhew drove over from a lineout not long into the second stanza. It was a rare try from the loosehead prop.
That pair did not have a monopoly on work-rate, with No 8 Murphy Taramai, against his old province, and lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, also prominent.
Wellington had more ball, more field position and scored more tries, but they made 11 costly handling errors and were pinged, sometimes harshly, by referee Paul Williams. Captain Brad Shields, crestfallen at fulltime, gave his all.
Replacement hooker Asafo Aumua scored his sixth try of 2016 from a lineout drive, which Wellington executed well on several occasions. Wings Wes Goosen and Joe Hill were busy and effective. But the home team were often playing catch-up and a last-minute try to Sheridan Rangihuna made for a flattering scoreline to the Lions.
North Harbour 40 (T. Li, G. Preston, N. Mayhew, D. Hilton-Jones tries; B. Gatland 4 cons, 4 pens)
Wellington 37 (L. Apisai, W. Goosen, A. Aumua, J. Hill, S. Rangihuna tries; J. Garden-Bachop 3 cons, 2 pens)