Canterbury 21 Wellington 26
There were shades of a certain World Cup quarter-final in this Air New Zealand Cup semifinal - everyone expecting a resurgent Canterbury to produce the final, telling score but it never came.
That was the only similarity. No blame could be attached to the referee and, unlike the All Blacks, Canterbury's intensity and purpose went missing in a first half so woeful their coach called it "embarrassing".
Wellington survived the desperate fightback in which Canterbury scored two tries in the final quarter. At one stage Wellington were ahead by 20 points. They booked a place against Auckland in next week's final after virtuoso performances from No 8 Thomas Waldrom, fine goalkicking from Jimmy Gopperth and the safety of Cory Jane and Shannon Paku at the back.
Upended 41-23 on their last visit to Christchurch, Wellington showed the kind of courage and self-belief that comes from the momentum of a recent winning streak. They will go into the final having won eight on the trot.
Canterbury coach Rob Penney lamented his side's poor first 40 minutes, full of missed tackles, indiscretions and poor tactical kicking.
Penney wanted the sort of starting performance that smothered Waikato from the whistle and won them, albeit briefly, the Ranfurly Shield six weeks ago. Instead, Canterbury faltered, looked wanting and ignored the game plan.
"We were just ordinary," Penney conceded. "We didn't manage to get our hands on the ball for long and our option-taking wasn't great. We were woeful in the first half. We didn't come to play, which is so disappointing because our prep was good, we thought."
Penney noted a "couple of individuals" who worked hard but rued too many lost opportunities.
"We just didn't function well," he said. "We literally didn't look like we'd played together before. The strategy that we took into the game wasn't being utilised and it was really quite embarrassing."
Penney said his half-time pep-talk revolved around grabbing chances.
"We started playing footy and started to stress them. If we'd had a wee bit more luck on a couple of occasions we might have got there."
Wellington, Penney said, "nailed" Canterbury in the tight and put them under "real pressure", strangling any attacking chances.
But he was happier with the last quarter, with tries to departing stalwart Johnny Leo'o and burly prop Campbell Johnstone setting up a thrilling finish.
Camped deep inside the Wellington 22 for the last five minutes, the Canterbury pack tried several forward drives, leaving a disappointing crowd of 7500 fans expecting the clincher. But it was not to be.
Wellington coach Aussie McLean praised his side's courage in keeping a determined Canterbury contained to the end.
"I'm really proud of the courage they showed in the last 15 minutes because our boys were out on their feet," he said. "I think the Canterbury boys were, too, but they just kept coming. To keep on defending and forcing errors was really fantastic to see."
McLean said it was "just as well" Wellington got away to a good start.
"We played the game that we wanted to play and when we're allowed to play our game, we're quite hard to hold. We knew Canterbury would come back. There wasn't any doubt about that."
While McLean admitted feeling anxious in the last few minutes, he said he'd "rather be nervous with a lead like that [five points] than to be nervous at 9-9".
He acknowledged a huge improvement in Wellington since the cup's round-robin stages.
"We're a lot different team to what we were when we came down here in the round-robin," he said.
"They know what they're trying to do and they're executing it quite well, and that really builds your self-belief. "We've got one to go yet, though, and that's another mountain to climb."
Canterbury 21 (J. Leo'o, C. Johnstone tries; S.Brett 1 con, 3 pen), Wellington 26 (T. Tu'ipulotu 2 tries; J. Gopperth 2 con, 4 pen).