It has taken seven years but Wellington finally make the NPC playoffs for the first time. With the All Blacks away on World Cup duty, Wellington's depth comes to the fore. They hammer Waikato 38-17 in a Hamilton semifinal but are out-muscled by Auckland in the final, going down 24-18.
Wellington finish third after an up-and-down season that included a 38-38 draw with Canterbury in a Ranfurly Shield match in Christchurch and heavy home defeats by Otago and North Harbour. They sneak past Waikato 30-29 in a Hamilton semifinal to set up a home final against Auckland. Christian Cullen scores two tries on his farewell appearance but Auckland are rampant, with Keven Mealamu, Doug Howlett and Mils Muliaina among the try-scorers in a 41-29 victory.
Wellington have qualified top and will host their second straight NPC final after dispatching Waikato 28-16 in the semis. But Canterbury have been reinforced by their returning All Blacks and go into the game strong favourites. Justin Marshall scores twice, Richie McCaw and Aaron Mauger also cross and Dan Carter ties Andrew Mehrtens' record for most points in a final (20) with four conversions and four penalties as the Cantabs crush Wellington 40-27.
The fourth seed going into the playoffs after the convoluted pool and repechage regular-season, the Lions knock off fifth-placed Canterbury 36-23 in the capital to set up an Eden Park semifinal against Auckland. Conrad Smith, Tana Umaga, Jerry Collins and Neemia Tialata all score as the All Blacks-reinforced Lions crush the Aucklanders 30-15. In the final in Hamilton, Warren Gatland's Waikato race to an early lead before Wellington fight back with two tries to Ma'a Nonu and another by Umaga. But Waikato are never seriously threatened. Gatland famously says he is disappointed, as his side should have beaten Wellington by more.
Wellington head into the playoffs having finished third, with an eight-win, two-loss record. They dispatch Southland 45-3 in a home quarter-final and then defeat second seeds Canterbury 26-21 in Christchurch to book a final showdown with unbeaten Auckland. Jay Williams and Ica Nacewa score early tries and Nacewa converts both to give Auckland a handy 14-3 lead. Jeremy Thrush gets a try back for Wellington shortly before the break but three Nacewa penalties close out a 23-14 victory for Auckland, condemning Wellington to a fourth final defeat in five years.
The odd one out - 2000:
A star-studded Wellington smash the Aucklanders 48-23 in an Eden Park semi to set up a final against Canterbury in Christchurch. The match is a classic, with Wellington holding off Canterbury in a thriller to claim their first title since 1986. Jonah Lomu scores two tries - the second a sensational 50m effort that starts and ends with strong fends on Marika Vunibaka - as Wellington build a commanding lead. But Canterbury hit back with tries to Andrew Mehrtens and Todd Blackadder and a barrage of penalties from Mehrtens and Ben Blair. In the final minutes, Dion Waller deliberately knocks down a pass to prevent a winning Canterbury try. Waller is dispatched to the sin bin but referee Paul Honiss declines to award a penalty try and Wellington cling on for the victory.