Campbell Burnes: Remembering when All Blacks played in NPC finals

Michael Jones and Paul Thomson hold the trophy aloft after Auckland beat Wellington in the 1999 NPC final. Photo / Getty
Michael Jones and Paul Thomson hold the trophy aloft after Auckland beat Wellington in the 1999 NPC final. Photo / Getty

As we prepare for a weekend of provincial finals, SKY Sport has shown a week of NPC finals on one of its pop-up channels.

Purely in the interests of research, I watched one of them: the 1999 Auckland v Wellington decider at Eden Park. It is here where I might normally write 'a wave of nostalgia washed over me', until I remembered this was the only NPC final I had missed since 1992.

Dammit, I was in France playing some code in between socialising and never got to see Michael Niko Jones bow out of all rugby at the age of 34. He was past his best by then, having been cut by the All Blacks some 12 months earlier. But he was still the greatest.
Some things had not changed. Nisbo was still leading the TV commentary.

But one had to smile... there were around 20,000 at Eden Park. This was regarded as an average crowd. I'll wager Canterbury will be lucky to attract more than 15,000 for the Premiership final tomorrow night.

And there were, wait for it, 19 All Blacks - past or future - on show that October 23 night 17 years ago. A further eight from Auckland and Wellington were in the UK preparing for a Rugby World Cup quarter-final showdown with Scotland.

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It was not the flashest game. Auckland won 24-18 and were just happy for the W.

Wellington made 14 handling errors to two and Auckland played quite conservatively, strange when they had the electric Orene Ai'i running the cutter. The 20-year-old had burst onto the scene just weeks earlier, scoring a hat-trick in his starting debut against Otago and looking every inch a future All Black. Funny how things pan out.

Norm Hewitt was the Wellington skipper. Just months after a very public fall from grace, he made a gracious post-match speech. In the last 60 minutes of the contest, he marked a small but totally committed young Auckland tyro. His name was Keven Mealamu.

Michael Jones was helped from the field at halftime. His career looked all over, but he re-emerged. He won lineout ball at the front. At fulltime, on his haunches in prayer, he was mobbed as Eden Park rose for its champion.

One banner read: 'For God so loved rugby he gave us Michael Jones.'

Wellington had their moments, but not enough of them. First five David Holwell scored a fine solo try - prompting Murray Mexted, bless him, to ask whether this was the ebb and flow of psychic energy - and No 8 Filo Tiatia, after a storming NPC, bulldozed his way over for a consolation score.

Auckland made less mistakes and wing Caleb Ralph scored an opportunist try from an Ofisa Tonu'u grubber. Replacement Charles Riechelmann scored Auckland's second from a searing break by wing Doug Howlett. But that was all academic.

There was the arresting sight of a 19-year-old Jerry Collins hobbling to the stage on crutches to receive his silver medal. Dave Rennie was alongside head coach Graham Mourie in the crowd. A year later, 'Rens' would guide Wellington to its first victory in an NPC final.

Those were the days.

- NZ Herald

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