9.30pm



AUCKLAND 41 WELLINGTON 29



Auckland completed a notable hat-trick when beating Wellington 41-29 in the NPC first division rugby final here tonight.




Auckland's successful retention of the NPC crown they won last year saw them end 2003 with a trio of New Zealand rugby's most highly prized trophies.

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They also hold the Ranfurly Shield while the Blues, of which Auckland are senior partners, are the reigning Super 12 champions.




Despite missing a swag of players on World Cup duty with the All Blacks in Australia, Auckland have turned on their class in recent weeks and capped it all off by deservedly winning tonight's final at Westpac Stadium.




They scored six tries to four and led 19-17 at halftime.




Two of their tries went to livewire fullback Orene Ai'i to cancel out the two scored by his more experienced Wellington counterpart Christian Cullen.




It was Cullen's last first-class match in New Zealand before he joins Irish club Munster and the All Blacks great was given an emotional sendoff from his home crowd when he left the field because of a shoulder injury in the 74th minute.




The game was held up as the crowd rose as one to give Cullen a standing ovation and many of the Auckland players also applauded a player considered one of the greatest fullbacks ever produced in this country.




Cullen's second try, immediately before halftime, was a reward for his cheek when he opted for a tap penalty instead of kicking for goal from a handy position.




That enabled Wellington to reach the halftime break just 17-19 behind but Auckland sealed the outcome by scoring two tries in as many minutes to lead 31-17 eight minutes after the resumption.

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- NZPA