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Torment Nears An End For Final Flops

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Auckland, Oct 19 NZPA - One of New Zealand rugby's nearly men will emerge from an era of frustration next Saturday after Wellington and Canterbury predictably progressed to the provincial title decider.

While long-term forecasts of a repeat of the 2004 finale were ultimately vindicated, picking the outcome in Wellington appears less straight forward after both sides displayed vulnerability -- and championship-winning qualities in the semifinals.

Wellington needed a late try by Hosea Gear to quell Southland's stubborn resistance in the first semifinal last Friday.

After rubbing out a 11-14 deficit with his 13th try of the season -- a Wellington record -- Gear then set up the clincher for Conrad Smith as Wellington replicated their happy knack of finishing strongly to record a 28-19 win.

A similar final quarter burst the week before put eliminated Taranaki by a flattering 20-point margin.

"The positive thing for us is that they did gather themselves and they did come back and score a couple of tries to win, and that's what I'm proud of," Wellington coach Jamie Joseph said.

"But we dropped those little passes again and guys breached (the line) and there were little knock-ons here and there and that seemed to let Southland back into the game. We need to keep working on that."

A scratchy Canterbury, meanwhile, conjured up two breakout tries in as many minutes in the final quarter last night to finally subdue a Hawke's Bay side who made a far better fist of their second visit to Christchurch in three weeks.

Their reward after notching a 31-21 win is a first final since their successful visit to the capital in 2004.

Since then the Super rugby powerbase has been tripped up in either the semis or quarterfinals -- and twice by Wellington.

However, history does not necessarily favour the Ranfurly Shield holders, who are seeking their first double season since 1981.

Since winning the first final of the new Millennium -- in Christchurch -- Wellington have come off second best in each of their four subsequent finals appearances.

Waikato and Auckland had have their measure in both Air NZ Cup showdowns and a first meeting with Canterbury this season offers a potentially nervy experience for a Wellington side facing the stingiest defence in the competition.

While Gear's tryscoring exploits have drawn comparisons to his brother Rico -- and seem to have placed him on a similar path to the All Blacks -- Canterbury's fourth-choice first five-eighth shared the limelight with a commanding allround performance that belied his inexperience.

Colin Slade started the season trailing the admittedly unavailable Daniel Carter, Stephen Brett and Hamish Gard in the race for the No 10 jersey.

Now injury to Brett and his own solid form has seen the 21-year-old preparing for the biggest test of his fledgling career.

Slade set up Canterbury's first try, ghosted through for the second before switching to fullback and somehow preventing lock Bryn Evans scoring a try that might have given Hawke's Bay a sniff when trailing 14-28.

Slade, who missed a last minute penalty that would have prevented Canterbury's opening round loss to Manawatu, had made early post a winner since replacing Brett for the last regular season match in Invercargill.

Reflecting on his 16-point haul against Hawke's Bay, Slade admitted: "It's been pretty intense. This is all new to me.

"I thought I'd spend the season learning off the experienced guys, that learning experience has accelerated a little bit."

Slade has been guided by halfback Andy Ellis, though there is no guarantee the All Black will be available after damaging knee ligaments.

Ellis, who was replaced near halftime by Tyson Keats, will be assessed later this week.

But wing James Patterson's season is over after he also sustained a knee injury in the opening minute.

The prognosis is more positive on the knocks suffered by centre Casey Laulala and lock Isaac Ross.

Wellington have a clean bill of health other than the usual bumps and bruises.

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