Waikato 37 Wellington 31
HAMILTON - Last season the bells were tolling ominously for Warren Gatland after he marked his return to Waikato rugby by coaching the province to seventh in the old National Provincial Championship.
A year on, the cowbells are clanging with delight, a pulsating, ear-splitting cacophony to greet Waikato's first title since 1992 thanks to a composed 37-31 defeat of Wellington here tonight.
Consistently the best team all season, Waikato capped a remarkable turnaround from 2005 to claim the inaugural Air New Zealand Cup tonight before a delirious capacity crowd of 25,000.
Ma'a Nonu and Tana Umaga scored late tries to narrow the margin but Waikato's long-awaited victory celebrations were never really threatened -- particularly after a controversial try was awarded to Byron Kelleher two minutes after the halftime break.
Match officials failed to notice crafty openside Marty Holah kick the ball through a Wellington scrum close to their line and as the ball spewed clear Kelleher beat All Blacks rival Piri Weepu to the punch to give Waikato a 24-13 buffer.
When England-bound midfielder David Hill's 53rd minute penalty inflated the margin to 27-16, Wellington were in catch up mode and never quite bridged the gap.
Jimmy Gopperth added a three-pointer but a slick Waikato set piece move from a close range scrum spelt doom for the Wellingtonians, who again had to be content to finish runners-up as they did to Auckland in 2003 and Canterbury 12 months later.
As the backline split, Kelleher's understudy Brendon Leonard made the perfect arrival, taking a pass from Liam Messam to power through Umaga, Gopperth and Jerry Collins to put Waikato well out of sight with 10 minutes to play at 34-19.
Nonu scored a breakout try with six minutes to play and then Umaga grabbed a consolation try on the death.
In keeping with the tension befitting the domestic showpiece for two sides desperate to end barren runs, both teams made a jittery start -- right from the kickoff when Weepu failed to kick the ball 10 metres.
Waikato also put themselves under pressure, surrendering two early turnovers before a couple of misdirected kicks to the potent Wellington back three also threatened to cause some self-inflicted damage.
Nonu returned one Stephen Donald punt with interest and it ultimately led to the visitors opening the scoring through a fifth minute penalty to Gopperth after Holah infringed at a ruck in front of his posts.
A solid lineout platform and slick Hill pass to Sosene Anesi breached the Wellington backline defence enabling Richard Kahui, the competition's leading tryscorer, to power over by the posts and nab his eighth touchdown of the season.
Anesi split the attempted tackles of Shannon Paku and Nonu with embarrassing ease and although he fell off balance he was still able to find Kahui who crossed in the tackle of Cory Jane.
Hill nailed the extras but Gopperth narrowed the gap to one with an 18th minute penalty.
Wellington suffered a setback as Joe McDonnell joined fellow-first choice prop Neemia Tialata -- who was ruled out before kickoff with his calf injury -- on the sideline leaving little-used duo John Schwalger and Anthony Perenise -- in just his third game -- to hold the fort against an imposing Waikato eight.
The Mooloo pack did form the basis of the next score when a rock solid scrum and a couple of concerted drives preceded Kelleher crossing in the tackle of Umaga under the bar three minutes after Holah was held up over the line.
A barnstorming run from Sione Lauaki gave Waikato a sniff of more points but after a turnover, Wellington finally showed a glimpse of their predatory instincts when Rodney So'oialo broke over halfway dissecting Hill and Robinson's despairing dive to calmly set Nonu for an unimpeded run between the posts.
Lauaki sustained a knee injury in the movement but lasted to halftime when he was replaced by Liam Messam.
Lauaki limped on to join the festivities but his gait potentially gives the All Blacks selectors more headaches ahead of tomorrow's naming of the tour squad to play England, France and Wales next month.
Waikato captain Steven Bates was jubilant, leaping into the air at the sound of the fulltime whistle.
"We don't have the most flashy players in the world but we work for ourselves and, with a crowd like this, how can you not be inspired," he said.
"We've been building slowly throughout the season, I don't know what to say, this just means so much."
Wellington skipper Umaga sought no excuses.
"They were too good for us to today," he said.
"They beat us physically all over the place. They played to their pattern very well. They're a very clinical side."
Byron Kelleher 2 tries, Richard Kahui 1, Brendon Leonard 1, David Hill 3 penalties and 4 conversions.
Ma'a Nonu 2 tries, Tana Umaga 1, Jimmy Gopperth 4 penalties and 2 conversions.