Canterbury win sixth NPC title on the bounce
Canterbury tamed Wellington's wild winds in the second half to collect the final piece of their "six pack'' as they beat the Lions 29-13 at Westpac Stadium tonight.
The Cantabs' triumph,, which came after they trailed 10-7 at the break, ensured they notched-up their sixth consecutive national provincial championship victory to banish any doubts that having a new coach in Scott Robertson might slow their momentum.
Three coaches - Rob Penney, Tabai Matson and Robertson - have been in charge during this remarkable dynasty and at this rate only a buffoon would bet against them doing it again next year.
It wasn't a mile of smiles for all of the Canterbury players, though.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will have been concerned at the sight of their loosehead prop Joe Moody being assisted from the field in the second spell; Moody injured his ankle as he lunged for the try line.
He was to have an X-ray tonight and if the injury is serious his chances of going on the northern tour may be in jeopardy.
Wellington coach Chris Boyd lamented his side not amassing enough points in the first half when they led 10-7 at halftime.
"We didn't get enough points downwind; didn't control the breakdown and didn't control the supply of ball,'' Boyd said.
"We couldn't get our game going, so credit to them in those areas.''
For Wellington captain Victor Vito admitted losing at home just rubbed it in even more.
"They came to our house and did it and that's probably what hurts the most.''
Canterbury, who used an historical march to the South Pole as the theme for their campaign, were scavengers at the rucks, always looking to win the ball.
Captain George Whitelock acknowledged his men adjusted their body height at the breakdowns and that enabled them to control possession and field position more.
Whitelock, who has played in all six of Canterbury's wins, maintained it was too early to nominate which win meant the most.
"I will look back on it when I am 50 or something like that. It hasn't really sunk in ... All this week has just been about this week and this team.''
Often in these matches the pressure demands that whoever blinks first will pay a hefty cost and although Canterbury's lineout wasn't always flash they remained composed.
Much of that credit should go to Whitelock, their skipper in the No 7 jersey.
He made sure they didn't lose their heads; his timing at the breakdown was at times superb, he carried the ball strongly and he banged-up opponents in defence.
Halfback Andy Ellis, before he was replaced by Willi Heinz in the 60th minute, was one of the most influential men on the park.
His ability to control the game, whether demanding his men run on to the ball harder, running the ball himself or kicking for field position, was pivotal.
Canterbury recorded four tries and had it not been for Wellington's tenacious defence there could have been more. Referee Chris Pollock several times called for the TMO to make calls to deny the Cantabs tries and also boldly (and correctly) ruled Tom Taylor lost the ball in the 23rd minute.
When the two sides met earlier in the season Wellington carved-up by using big ball carriers such as Victor Vito and Ardie Savea to make easy metres but they never got that chance in the final as Canterbury's defence remained resolute.
Left wing Patrick Osborne's chirpy personality appears to be a hit with hisCanterbury team-mates but his ability to distribute passes with one giant claw must be treasured even more.
Last night it was Ellis' turn to strike gold: when Osborne re-gathered his own grubber kick all Ellis had to do was run an inside line, hold the pass and score.
Wellington's grit was a true indicator of why they were the minor premiers after the round-robin and they quickly learned not to give the ball away so easily.
Halfback Frae Wilson erred by turning over precious possession when he kicked the ball to Osborne and his skipper Vito must have felt like rotating his lug several times to ensure he got the message about such daft tactics.
First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga rolled over the scoreboard with a penalty whenCanterbury had lost a lineout and with seven minutes remaining in the first half he danced through the defence to score to pump-up the 15,070-strong crowd.
That followed a bold call by Vito to snub a kickable penalty and kick the nut out and construct an attacking lineout instead.
Zealous Canterbury defence enabled them to repel the invaders as they used their fatties to charge around the corner of the rucks, but eventually they profited through Sopoaga who pitched off his left foot, straightened and gassed in open space.
Wellington's 10-7 lead lasted five minutes into the second half and if Hansen feels he got some rough edges to knock-off Savea's game he isn't wrong.
Flanker Savea, who will join the All Blacks in Paris as part of their apprenticeship scheme, took the strange decision to hack at the ball inside his own quarter and when it pinged straight into George Whitelock's gut he knew he had done wrong.
Immediately the alarm bells were buzzing in the Wellington camp.
And they got even louder when the ball was spat out of a Canterbury ruck, was transferred into Osborne's hands and he fired off a massive pass to send Ryan Crotty across in the corner.
It was in a nearby patch of real estate where Canterbury snared their third try, this time to playmaker Tyler Bleyendaal after centre Adam Whitelock had been caught short.
Canterbury 29 (Andy Ellis, Ryan Crotty, Tyler Bleyendaal, George Whitelock tries; Tom Taylor 3 cons, pen) Wellington 13 (Lima Sopoaga try, con, 2 pens). HT: 7-10