By HERALD ONLINE STAFF
Wellington has won a thrilling NPC first division final, beating Canterbury 34-29 at Jade Stadium.
Wellington dominated most of the game, scoring four tries to two, and withstood a final fifteen minutes of relentless Canterbury attack as the southerners, looking to add the NPC title to their trophy cabinet, launched numerous assaults on the Lions line.
Canterbury scored two tries in the final quarter, but the lead Wellington had built up over the course of the match was enough.
Jonah Lomu scored two tries for the Lions, one in each half, and first-five David Holwell had a good night with the boot, kicking four conversions and two penalties.
Wellington started the game as they played last week's semifinal against Auckland – scoring tries.
In the eighth minute, Jonah Lomu regathered a clever Jason O'Halloran chip-kick to score. David Holwell, who kicked a penalty in the fourth minute converted to give the Lions a 10-0 lead.
The try was quickly followed by another Holwell penalty, before Canterbury got on the scoreboard with a Ben Blair penalty in the 12th minute.
Andrew Mehrtens also took a long-range penalty for the red-and-blacks and showed no signs of his nagging groin injury to land the goal.
Soon after Wellington was back on attack, Christain Cullen breaking the line and off-loading to lock Inoke Afiake who powered over.
Holwell continued his perfect kicking display to land the conversion and Wellington led 20-6.
Blair then kicked two more penalties before halftime to keep Canterbury in touch at 20-12.
Wellington's lead at the break could have been larger, but Cullen was pulled back for obstruction by referee Paul Honiss with the tryline open.
Blair kicked a penalty early in the second half, but Wellington were soon back in try-scoring mode, capitalising on some Canterbury turnovers and fortunate bounces of the ball.
O'Halloran finished a long move involving Cullen and Umaga to score under the posts.
Two minutes later, Lomu played cat-and-mouse with Marika Vunibaka, pushing him off three times before going over in the corner.
Holwell converted both tries and Wellington's 34-15 lead, with 18 minutes to play, looked to be too much for Canterbury.
But the Ranfurly Shield holders, who had been struggling to stay with the Lions, hit top gear in a withering finish.
Mehrtens scored a well-taken try and was soon followed by All Black captain Todd Blackadder, who smashed over the line with eight minutes to play.
Blair got Canterbury to within a converted try of victory by converting both tries, but as the clock ran down the Wellington defense held – despite being reduced to 14 men after Dion Waller was shown the yellow card for repeated spoiling tactics – and Canterbury's perfect season was stopped short.
(Lomu 2, Afiake, O'Halloran tries; Holwell 2 pen, 4 con)
(Mehrtens, Blackadder tries; Blair 4 pen, 2 con; Mehrtens pen)