During the week I stumbled across a replay of the 2000 NPC first division final between Wellington and Canterbury.

It was fascinating to watch, not only because of the closeness of the contest but the context of the game itself.

Start with the venue - Lancaster Park - home to all the test matches I attended in the 1950s and '60s.

At the time of the match, the big changes that were to transform the standing-room only embankment into the three-tiered stand which replaced it were just getting under way.


A name change to Jade Stadium was a year or two ahead, but the earthquakes brought everything at the ground to a shattering halt almost exactly seven years ago.

I know it is still standing, as I drove past a few weeks ago, but the substratum under the stands has been so compromised by liquefaction it has to be reduced to rubble and carted away - to be replaced by a new stadium near the centre of the city if the Government has its way.

Back to the game, which was played on a Saturday afternoon before a packed house on a dry ground.

Unlike these days when All Blacks almost never get to play for their province, both teams were stacked with All Blacks - at least 16 that I counted for Canterbury and about 11 for Wellington.

Three All Black captains were playing - Reuben Thorne and Todd Blackadder for the red and blacks, and Tana Umaga for Wellington.

Canterbury boasted the likes of Justin Marshall, Andrew Mehrtens, Daryl Gibson, Caleb Ralph and Ben Blair in their backs, along with Mark Hammett, Chris Jack, Scott Robertson, Greg Feek, Dave Hewitt and Greg Somerville in the forwards.

Norm Maxwell was making a real nuisance of himself and seemed to get involved in almost every incident.

Wellington's strike power came from the back three of Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu and Umaga, while their forward pack included the likes of Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo and an abrasive Norm Hewitt.

Refereeing royalty were in charge of the game.

Paul Honis was the match official, with touch judges Paddy O'Brien and Steve Walsh, but they had no radios for communication, nor a TMO to refer decisions for checking.

So effectively the referee "ran" the match himself - he certainly seemed to do a lot of talking to (instructing) players.

Comments were supplied by Mark "Bull" Allen and Murray Mexted adding his Wellington bias, which was necessary as the penalty count massively favoured Canterbury, including a 12-1 count in the second half alone.

The game itself was a titanic struggle between the top two teams in the country, filled with aggression which threatened to erupt at almost every breakdown.

But the most interesting aspect of the game for me was comparing the way it was played to what we have 17 years later - it was like peering back into the dark ages.

For starters, scrums were a mess.

The players quickly lined up in formation some distance apart on the referee's command of "crouch and hold" and then crashed together on the command of "engage!"

The all-important stability that referees insist on these days was non-existent.

Each scrum wobbled and screwed all around the mark before the halfback put the ball in, but at least it usually came out quickly.

Lineouts weren't much better. There seemed to be a lot of interference on the jumper for the ball, leading to niggle between players.

Perhaps the most obvious difference to the modern game though was the way that players charged into rucks, often from the side, in an effort to "clean out" opposing players so that their players could ruck the ball back.

And there was some "rucking" too where players used their feet to ruck the ball and anyone lying around it back to their halfback.

Despite all this there was some enterprising play and cracking tries scored, including two from Lomu, crashing his way over a couple of hapless Cantabrians in much the same way that he walked all over Mike Catt in the World Cup in 1995.

For the record, Wellington got out to a big lead in the second half and hung on as Canterbury came back to within a try of snatching the title in a frenetic five minutes of injury time, aided by that lop-sided penalty count.

A nasty virus finally caught up with me last week so I missed all local rugby at the weekend.

But I did get a gallop this week with the secondary schools girls' seven-a-side competition, which WRFU development officer Lesley McKenzie is organising on after-school Wednesdays for the next five or six weeks.

As well as local schools participating, visiting teams came from Rangitikei College and Feilding Ag High School, while hopefully Taihape and Ruapehu may be able to add to the team list next week.

Many girls had participated last year but there were a number having their first taste of rugby.

The passing skills especially were impressive as they tried to work the space of a full field but with only 14 players.

Some of the tackles were bone-shaking. Side-stepping was rarely an option adopted by players.

If you have time on a Wednesday afternoon during school term, drop in to City College and see if you can spot a future Black Fern emerging.

There were a couple of locals in this year's World Cup team to spur these girls on to bigger things.