CANTERBURY 30 OTAGO 19
Canterbury are the 2001 NPC champions.
On the back of a strong second-half rally, they defeated Otago in tonight's Division One final on a wet Christchurch evening, in front of 27,000 spectators at Jade Stadium.
For the popular red and blacks' captain Todd Blackadder, the result means he finishes his New Zealand rugby career on a winning note.
The weather had been showery all day in the Canterbury region (and indeed over most of the country) – conditions which analysts said during the pre-match build-up would suit Otago's cause more strongly than Canterbury's.
The reason for that was the Canterbury side were packed with playmaking talent from numbers 1 through to 15, and had been firm favourites all week to take the title; while if the match could be contained to a dour forward battle in wet conditions, it was considered Otago could negate much of Canterbury's advantage.
However, after trailing at halftime by ten points, the Canterbury side grew stronger with each passing minute in the second half, while their southern opponents seemed to become bereft of ideas and resources, drained from their early efforts.
Laurie Mains' Otago side were the first to cross their opponents' line. With six minutes to go till halftime, Brendan Laney, playing his last match for the blue and golds, scored after a deft intercept from Otago loose forward Sam Harding. However, that would prove to be the only time on the night that the home side's tryline was breached, a testament to the tight defence which has been Canterbury's calling card all season long.
Penalties to Laney, and Andrew Mehrtens for the red and blacks, made up the rest of the first-half scoring. Otago led 16-6 at halftime.
Any thoughts that the 10,000 or so Otago supporters who travelled north might be witnessing an upset were put to rest as the second half progressed.
Justin Marshall scored shortly after the break, following relentless Canterbury pressure, and two Andrew Mehrtens penalties saw the scores just a point apart at 17-16 - a scoreline which lasted for much of the middle of the second spell.
At the match's three-quarter mark, it remained anybody's game, but the deadlock was to be broken by a try that typified the electrifying rugby that the home side had demonstrated throughout the 2001 season.
Following a fine lineout take by Reuben Thorne, a Canterbury backline move which brought the blindside winger into the backline as the extra man saw Nathan Mauger speed through a gap and dot down near the posts. The Mehrtens conversion saw Canterbury move out to an 8-point gap, 24-16.
That was to be the last try in the match.
Laney, who kicked three from four attempts during the game, and Andrew Mehrtens (2) added goals to take the final score to Canterbury 30, Otago 19.
Much of the strategy employed by both sides was the long kicking game, aimed at turning the opposition around by putting the ball behind them and forcing them to re-group defensively.
For Canterbury coach Steve Hansen, it was a satisfying way to end a season where much was expected of his team – especially by snaring the victory from his one-time mentor, Mains.
Many of the prospective candidates for All Black jerseys when the side is named Sunday morning were prominent in the game. For the champions, Norm Maxwell had an excellent game at lock until he was replaced by Brad Thorn with ten minutes left. The loose forward trio of Scott Robertson, Reuben Thorne and Richard McCaw enjoyed the run of the park and were consistently quicker to the loose ball than their Otago counterparts. In the backs, Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens combined well at halfback and first five-eighth.
In the few occasions they did get their hands on the ball, the Canterbury backs always looked dangerous.
On the Otago side, Byron Kelleher displayed the tenacity around the scrum that got him his original All Black call-up. First five Tony Brown looked to be in good form until an ankle injury forced him off the field after 27 minutes.
However, Jeff Wilson looked a worried man after the match and well he might be, as the security of his All Black position has been under critical scrutiny all week.
The match was an emotional send-off for Canterbury captain Todd Blackadder, who is off to end his rugby-playing days on an overseas contract.
The referee was Paul Honiss, of Waikato.
2001 NPC schedule/scoreboard
NPC Division One squads
CANTERBURY 30 OTAGO 19