Wellington wing Hosea Gear ripped the heart out of a brave Southland side, scoring two tries and setting up another in his side's 28-19 Air NZ Cup rugby semifinal win in Wellington last night.
Gear must have booked himself a berth on the All Blacks' trip to Europe next month as, in front of coaches Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, he conjured up a try in each half from 30m out and then set up Conrad Smith in the dying minutes with a barging run.
Gear's two tries took him to 14, surpassing Bernie Fraser's 1981 Wellington record of 12 in a championship season.
With the win, Wellington, who lost last year's final to Auckland, made their fifth final in six years.
As top seeds, they will host the winnier of tomorrow night's second semifinal in which Canterbury host Hawke's Bay.
Southland, appearing in only their first semifinal, will take great pride from tonight's performance even if they fell a little short at the end.
They led twice in the match to force Wellington into some wobbly moments at 11-14 until Gear struck in the 70th minute to give his side the lead which they protected until the end.
For Southland, All Blacks halfback Jimmy Cowan was involved strongly in attack and defence and managed to hold up Gear once after the wing had powered over from a ruck just moments before his second try.
The game featured some rugged play from both sides with Southland playing at high pace when they had the ball and trying to slow Wellington ball down at every opportunity.
Their ruck tactics led to a general warning from referee Steve Walsh which saw substitute Willie Rickards subsequently yellow carded in the 19th minute.
An injured Walsh handing over refereeing duties to assistant Kelvin Deaker late in the first half.
Walsh had been unceremoniously bowled over twice as he got in caught up in play and was heard saying his achilles was troubling him as he walked off.
In another incident, Wellington No 8 Thomas Waldrom appeared to contact Cowan's face with his head as he went by.
Southland opened the scoring through Blair Stewart in the third minute, the first five eighth raising the flags with a clean strike.
But Wellington, keeping the ball close to their big men to try and punch holes in the Southland defence, replied with a brilliant try by Gear.
Gear, receiving the ball from 30 metres out, took a diagonal line and beat three tackles to score in the right hand corner.
With Weepu knocking over two penalties, Wellington held an 11-3 lead at halftime.
Southland, with skipper Jamie Mackintosh an inspiration and Stewart taking the right options everytime took the lead after halftime, scoring 11 points in the opening 17 minutes.
Stewart put over a penalty and then reading the game beautifully, put a kick over to the left flank to find blindside flanker Dion Bates who stepped past Wellington prop John Schwalger.
Bates then found speedster Pehi Te Whare who was untouched as he dotted down for a try, his third after scoring twice in last week's quarterfinal romp over Bay of Plenty.
Stewart kicked another penalty to put Southland 14-11 ahead.
But Wellington, after a few minutes off sloppy play, marked by three lost linouts on their own throw, knuckled down with Weepu and Rodney So'oialo playing important roles in steadying the ship.
They only had to get the ball to Gear to ensure they would win and stretch their unbeaten home record to 20 games and he duly complied.
Southland scored a consolation try through Matt Holloway on the hooter.