By Chris Rattue
A 25-minute fitness test before Saturday's night's NPC grand final gave Auckland the fillip they needed to go on and bag another major rugby title.
Auckland prevailed over Wellington 24-18 to take their 12th NPC title, and the fifth in the eight seasons there has been a finals system. A grand record.
The vital fitness test was on Eroni Clarke, in doubt all week with a hamstring problem, who passed the examination at Eden Park late on Saturday morning. As usual, Clarke found a higher force by his side.
"It was my call in the end and I knew I was only around 85 per cent. I asked God, 'Will you make up that 15 per cent?' and he came through," said Clarke.
That fitness test may have been the play of the day, and maybe more interesting to watch than at least the first half of an NPC final weighed down by the cause and effect of the tackled ball rule.
Players are so worried about getting caught in the tackle that the so-called tactical kick is left as the only safe option. The more important the game, the less inclined the players are to run with the ball, especially in their half.
Matches turn into aerial ping-pong as everyone waits for a mistake. The players are indulging in the old playground game of forceback, while the spectators are crying out for some bullrush.
Clarke and Craig Innes are the heart of this Auckland side. Defensively, they have no equal in the New Zealand game and work superbly in tandem. When Wellington tried to spin the ball wide, Innes and Clarke drifted across in unison then nailed their men if they tried to make a move.
When Paul Steinmetz did get way on a dangerous break in the first half, Innes made a lunging ankle tap to scuttle the move.
It was an imposing display by Innes in particular, who also knew just when to set off one of his midfield charges to settle Auckland down.
Auckland coach Wayne Pivac, asked to nominate the grand final game-breakers, quickly picked Clarke and Innes.
"Steinmetz and Jason O'Halloran had been the threat for Wellington in recent games," said Pivac of the Wellington midfield backs. "Craig and Eroni combine so well. We really wanted to get Eroni out there, and he led by example."
Wellington found an unlikely area of threat in first five-eighths David Holwell, who repeatedly wandered through the Auckland defence and set up Wellington's late rally, although he lacked the real pace to turn his breaks into something more profitable for the Lions.
The odd Holwell sortie was about the only memorable thing about the first half, in which Adrian Cashmore kicked three penalties for Auckland and Holwell one for Wellington.
Auckland were handicapped by a poor lineout, losing four of their own throws, which wrecked any momentum they may have gained.
They believed Wellington would turn a lot of pressure on to leaping Leo Lafaiali'i, so they changed some of their lineout moves, but they came unstuck.
Auckland's opening try in the 48th minute, which gave them a 16-6 lead, owed much to inept Wellington defending.
Referee Kelvin Deaker, who blew like a gale on his whistle in finding 26 penalties/freekicks, got in the way of an Auckland scrum move and called another scrum. He almost interfered again, as Orene Ai'i put through a grubber, Ali Koko lost the ball in an Innes tackle, Colin Sullivan appeared lost as he chased the ball, and Caleb Ralph pounced in front of Jason Spice.
Auckland's second came when Holwell tried to run and was smashed down by Steve Devine, who had just replaced Ofisa Tonu'u. Auckland ran the blind, with Charles Riechelmann finishing it off. At 24-6 with 13 minutes remaining the title appeared safe.
That was when the tension which should have run through the whole game appeared.
Holwell sparked the comeback when his opposite Ai'i kept drifting in defence, allowing Holwell to cut through in a superb run to the line. In the 77th minute, Filo Tiatia put on a double surge to drive over, although Holwell missed the conversion. It was 24-18.
But it came to a strange end. O'Halloran hoofed possession into touch with just a minute and a half remaining, Wellington knocked on at a ruck and Deaker missed a wild Wellington lineout throw which gave them one last chance.
"We showed a lack of composure," said Wellington coach Graham Mourie. "We knew Auckland would kick a lot. They did it 36 or 38 times in the semifinal ... but that's finals rugby.
"But we have got great spirit in this side and I'm very proud of what they've achieved."
Captain Norm Hewitt added: "The guys are very pleased to be where we are after the way we started this season. Of course we're not jumping up and down in the changing rooms ... but just to be in the final, to be competitive and to come back from 24-6 down. We just left it a bit late."