Wellington 16
Auckland 15

Used to be, Auckland were a great Ranfurly Shield side.

They might have an ordinary, unfulfilling provincial season sometimes down the years but, where the shield was concerned, the blue-and-whites grew another heart; sprouted fangs; went from lambs to lions.

The Wellington Lions, on the other hand, while not exactly lambs when it came to the shield, have never enjoyed quite the long relationships with the Log O' Wood Auckland has. If not shield lambs, Wellington were more like hoggets. Auckland just hogged it.


Or they used to. It wasn't like that last year, when Wellington lifted the shield off Auckland 27-0 and the champs were lucky, as the old joke has it, to get the nil.

It didn't start like that last night either. Wellington seemed to have the edge in key areas.

Former All Black props John Schwalger and Neemia Tialata introduced new Auckland prop Paea Fa'aunu to the unwelcome joys of scrumming against someone with experience; Jeremy Thrush and the rest of the lineout were efficient; the forwards were decisive at the breakdown; and first five-eighths Fa'atonu Fili ran matters smoothly, justifying coach Jamie Joseph's decision to play him ahead of the promising Daniel Kirkpatrick.

Even when things went a bit pear-shaped, they went well. A Fili cross-kick aimed at big blindside flanker Mark Reddish was supposed to head forward but instead went straight across field - almost behind Reddish.

He plucked it out of the air, manoeuvred winger Hosea Gear past a tackler and Gear was never going to be stopped by first five-eighths Ash Moeke's effort at a tackle.

Auckland, on the other hand, couldn't quite get it right. Dashing runs by fullback Isaia Toeava, winger Dave Thomas and flanker Onosai Auva'a all came to nothing, even though they all had distinct try scoring potential.

A loose pass here, a lack of support there, ruck infringements in front of a referee with a hair-trigger whistle and Auckland's chances seemed to be heading out to sea about as regularly as the Cook Strait ferry.

When Fili kicked along the ground, kept tickling the ball ahead while Auckland defenders snatched at the frustrating, bouncing thing, and re-gathered to score, it looked for all the world as if Wellington had a 15-3 lead and a strong grip on the match.

But referee Chris Pollock ruled out what seemed a perfectly fair try, saying he hadn't seen it and that his two touch judges couldn't help.

They must have been the only people at the stadium who wouldn't have awarded it.

Auckland held out to halftime but then slipped into a coma straight after the break, when a rather flat-footed Wellington attack was given wings by lock Daniel Ramsay.

The Auckland defence seemed bemused, Ramsay slipped the ball to second five Charlie Ngatai and he sent in ecstatic prop Schwalger for a Sean Fitzpatrick-style try in the corner.

Auckland kept making the flashy, dangerous breaks - but couldn't finish matters off. It took a good run by winger Paul Williams to break the pattern and first five Daniel Bowden, replacing Moeke, slipped through to score.

That rattled Wellington and Auckland forwards like hooker Tom McCartney, locks Kurtis Haiu and Jay Williams and Auva'a began to hoe into them. Replacement halfback Taniela Moa gave them some oomph; Auckland were dominating ball and territory and Toeava was clearly the most dangerous attacker on the field.

But then Thomas turned the ball over on attack, Wellington cruised up the other end and the sharp little Fili had a drop goal. Good shield tactics, Wellington up by 16-8.

Still Auckland showed their stuff. Thomas and Toeava tore down the left-hand touch in another potential scoring move but it all ended tamely again.

Fili kept working the ball, kicking in behind Auckland and frustrating them. At least he did until Moa burst from a ruck, sent Auckland galloping down the right before being there to take the final pass and easily beat fullback Buxton Popoali'i to score a fine try.

That made it 16-15 to Wellington and the weight of Auckland's shield history was pressing hard. Another Toeava and Thomas raid and, but for a spilled ball by replacement prop Charlie Faumuina, Auckland would have had the lead for the first time after 70 minutes.

Bowden missed with a drop goal, another Thomas-inspired attack ended with yet another handling error. Bowden then puzzlingly kicked possession away with a minute to go and Wellington ran the clock down.

Auckland had the talent, the time and the territory. Unfortunately they also had the turnovers. Wellington just had the shield. Just.

Wellington 16 (H. Gear, J. Schwalger tries; F. Fili pen, dg), Auckland 15 (D. Bowden, T. Moa tries; A. Moeke pen, Bowden con). HT: 8-3.