Above: Wellington Lions fullback Kelly Rolleston running in one of his two tries in this match against Western Samoa. Credit: EP 28/5/1996
Result: Wellington 52 – Western Samoa 30
When: 26 May 1996
1996 was a watershed year for world rugby, being the first year of professionalism.
The Super 12 competition started up in 1996 and the new Wellington Hurricanes team was born.
For the first time, Western Samoa came to New Zealand as a full international touring side and played one Test against the All Blacks, in Napier and under lights for the first time in New Zealand.
The one-off Test on 7 June was notable for being the debut of new fullback Christian Cullen, who had been part of the Hurricanes’ opening campaign. Cullen, who later played for Northern United, joined Poneke’s Frank Mitchinson (1907), Tom Lynch (1913) and Jeff Wilson (1993) as players to score a hat-trick on Test debut. The All Blacks won the Test 51-10.
Wellington players in the Samoan Test team included prop Brendan Reidy (Marist St Pat’s), Tala Leiasamaivao (Avalon), Joe Filemu (Petone) and Alex Telea (Petone). Telea scored Samoa’s only try.
The Samoans played Wellington in their first outing as a team in New Zealand. In other matches, they went on to beat Counties 31-19, Taranaki 26-18, Wairarapa-Bush 23-18 and King Country 27-18. Their seventh and final match was against the New Zealand Maori side at Mt Smart in Auckland, which they lost 15-28.
The All Blacks went on to beat Scotland 2-0 in a subsequent series, before winning the Bledisloe Cup and inaugural Tri Nations series. Highlights were beating Australia 43-6 in heavy rain at Athletic Park and defeating South Africa 3-1 in the Republic.
This was Wellington’s last ever match against international opposition at Athletic Park.
Coinciding with this brave new era of rugby, the Wellington side was rebranded the Wellington Lions at the start of 1996. Coach Frank Walker stated that “the team cannot afford to be pussies”, as the team unveiled a new playing strip at the media launch.
For a large part of the season, the Lions were to roar, winning their first nine matches straight, before falling away at the end and finishing fifth in the NPC. They were still three years away from making the semi-finals for the first time.
This match against Western Samoa was their second game of the season, coming after an opening 51-16 win over Wairarapa Bush and just before a 59-34 win over Manawatu.
The Lions were captained by halfback Jon Preston (Old Boys University), while they welcomed back other leading Super 12 players and Samoan heritage players, Filo Tiatia (Western Suburbs), Tana Umaga (Petone) and Alama Ieremia (Western Suburbs).
Another player to make his mark on Wellington in game was Fijian prop Bill Cavubati (Johnsonville), who had been riding the pine all season for the Hurricanes and came out like a beast unleashed and scored two tries.
Wellington started the game off slowly and an even contest developed – but a try just before halftime put Wellington ahead 16-13 at the break and they then scored two straight tries early in the second half to blew the game apart.
As well as Cavubati, fullback Kelly Rolleston (Marist St Pat’s) also scored two tries, while second five-eighth Kyle Byers (Upper Hutt) and Issac Feaunati (Marist St Pat’s) also scored tries in the 5 tries to 4 win. Preston also kicked 24 points.
Samoa came back at the end with a late burst of scoring but the damage had been done.
Wellington Lions: 1. Mike Edwards, 2. Matt Calvert, 3 Bill Cavubati. 4. John Daniell, 5.Mike Russell, 6. Andrew Gallagher, 7. Filo Tiatia, 8. Issac Feaunati, 9. Jon Preston, 10. Paul Moran, 11. Tana Umaga, 12.Kyle Byers, 13. Alama Ieremia, 14. Mark Fatialofa, 15. Kelly Rolleston. RESERVES: Simon Mannix, John Clarke, Greg Kingi, Tim Mannix, Gordon Simpson, Inoke Afeaki
Western Samoa: 1. Peter Fatialofa, 2.Tala Leiasamaivao, 3. George Latu, 4. Potu Leavasa, 5. Lio Falaniko,6. Sila Viafale, 7. Sam Kaleta, 8. Malakai Koloamatatangi, 9. Tu Nu’uatei’tia, 10. Toa Samuela, 11. Alex Telea, 12. Terry Fanuloa, 13. To’o Vaega, 14. Brian Lima, 15. Veli Patu. RESERVES: Tupo Fa’amasino, George Leaupepe, Joe Filemu, Salevi Tiatia, Robbie Ale,Onehunga Matatau
· The Dominion and Evening Post newspapers – May 1996
· WRFU. The Winds of Change: Wellington’s Rugby History Part 3 1979-2004. WRFU, 2004.