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Otago topple Wellington's hopes
Otago topple Wellington's hopes
(Lions slink back to shelters)
As referee Paddy O'Brien blew the final whistle at WestpacTrust Stadium on Saturday night, he ended not only a game but an all-too-brief reign at the top of New Zealand rugby for Wellington.

The capital's 28-10 defeat at the hands of Otago was a frustrating and sadly, familiar capitulation for the side which defeated Canterbury at Jade Stadium to take the NPC title last year.

The three-tries-to-one victory by the southerners was deserved because they were the better side, without doubt. They now go into a semi-final against North Harbour and must stand a good chance to go through to the 2001 NPC final, if not to take the title itself.

But for Wellington and their supporters who turned out in strength to back their side despite wet weather, it was the final nail in the coffin of a season which has seen them lose a title they fought so hard to gain in 2000.

Last year, the capital's team used their losses to spur them to greater heights. Somehow, their losses dragged them down further and further this year. It is not that Wellington have not at times played with fire and indeed nearly took the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury this year.

But the word "nearly" is the key factor. The potential for Wellington, like at so many times over the past 15 years, has been there. Last year, they finally came through at the last. This year, the fire at the right time was absent. Against Otago on Saturday night, Wellington again showed flashes of good form. Their backline is one of the best in the country, (as Wellington teams traditionally demonstrate) they have a forward pack which is highly competitive at its best. Yet they competed too lightly and too late.

Right from the start, there were signs that the capital weren't in it. Jonah Lomu took a clearing kick near his own goal-line and miscued his kick straight up where it was picked up by Jeff Wilson and then to Ryan Nicholas who scored in the corner. Tony Brown missed the conversion, but the psychological damage was already done.

This correspondent was a relatively discreet (though audible) Wellington supporter amidst a mixture of Otago and Wellington supporters on Saturday night. The reaction from Nicholas's try was startling, both sets of supporters letting out rueful applause towards Lomu. It was good to see the next time Lomu took a kick like that, he went for the mark.

Meanwhile, though, Brown had landed a conversion to make the score 8-0. For much of the remainder of the half, Wellington were unable to respond. Even worse, they conceded a converted try right on halftime, further damaging their morale, now down 15-0.

So once again, the capital side had to struggle back from the depths and they certainly started to fire, particularly in the forwards. David Holwell landed a penalty cutting the margin to 12 points but the halftime margin was restored when Tony Brown kicked a well-judged drop goal.

Then when a clearing kick from Byron Kelleher was charged down by Dion Waller, Tana Umaga kicked through and Cullen scored a try, converted by Holwell. Similar drive was now necessary for a Wellington comeback. But as the rain came down, the error rate continued to rise, with the amount of turnovers on the part of the Lions throughout the game possibly a major factor in the final result.

Another penalty by Tony Brown put Otago out to 21-10. Then Pita Alatini (whose imminent departure for Wellington, coincidentally, led to Paul Steinmetz's withdrawal from the home side before the game) made a break, passing to Sam Harding who scored. With Brown's further conversion, it was 28-10. Even a side with the strongest will would have found this margin daunting. With Wellington, the will to win seemed to fade away at this point, with largely static play dominating until the final whistle, ending their reign as NPC champions. Wellington supporters now must await the 2002 season to start again. It was a lacklustre effort for most of the game and while Otago's victory was completely deserved, one cannot help but wonder how the contract controversy over Paul Steinmetz before the game affected capital morale.

Steinmetz has been one of the Lions' name players this season and his controversial withdrawal was regrettable, highlighting the business complexities of the professional era. Such issues may be inevitable but they are red herrings from the main point of the game: 80 minutes on the paddock. Yet, the same symptoms present throughout 2001 were still there for Wellington on Saturday night: talent aplenty but a disjointed approach on the field, sporadically firing and missing when it counted.

Perhaps having been to the mountain top, there was nowhere else to go but down. But this correspondent has to ask: couldn't Wellington have stayed a little longer at the summit, defending their position from a position of strength? While it is often lonely at the top, Wellington had a legion of fans around the country who have stood by them through the lean times of the 1990s. They came out in force during 2000 and were there after the NPC title win hailing them in the streets. They stood by them this year even after some shockers, because Wellington have the potential to be the best.

Yet, at the end of the day, Wellington have the same problem that has haunted them for years: their lack of consistency. After all the troubles of the 2001 campaign, Wellington still stood a chance on Saturday night and it was surely not unrealistic to expect them to rise to the occasion.

Instead, they slumped before an Otago side that seemed to want a semi-final spot more than the Lions have looked like wanting for most of the season. The difference, in the end, was overwhelmingly one of attitude.

Weary and frustrated Wellington supporters across the board will now be hoping that attitude will have changed by the time the NPC starts in 2002. The thought of another 14 years in the wilderness is enough to make most Wellingtonians cringe. Surely that is motivation enough.


Let us know what you think!

Tough luck Wellington, maybe Steinmetz would have made the difference... :) In relation to that crazy situation I saw a great sign at the game, "Don't steal from Paul to pay Pita!"
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(Although it could have just been on the Reload button doing some serious ego padding!)