When the Wellington Lions meet Taranaki in New Plymouth in the last round they will be playing for a NPC semi-finals spot.
Last year the Lions reclaimed the John F Henning Trophy with a 42-26 win at Westpac Stadium. One of the most thrilling matches played at Westpac Stadium was Wellington’s win over Taranaki in 2004 in front of a full house. The following recount of this match previously appeared in a Lions match-day programme in 2010.
The Lions have enjoyed several large wins over Taranaki. Three such victories for the Lions at home over the amber the blacks came in the 2008 quarterfinals (50-30), the 2007 round-robin (53-12) and the 2004 round-robin (73-28).
As the scoreline suggests, the 2004 win over Taranaki, in the year of the Wellington Rugby Football Union’s 125th anniversary, was especially emphatic and was their most convincing performance in a season in which they earned a home NPC final against Canterbury.
Entering this round seven clash, the Lions were coming off a 13-17 defeat to Bay of Plenty at Mt. Maunganui. But with previous competition wins over Canterbury, North Harbour, Auckland and Waikato, plus a draw with Otago at Carisbrook, the Lions weren't phased about their ability to bounce back in a hurry.
They didn’t waste anytime in doing so either, coming out of the sheds and laying on a four-try spectacular of attacking, running rugby to take a 28-0 lead after just 15 minutes. Tries to wingers Sireli Bobo and Lome Fa’atau (2) in the 5th, 8th and 12th minutes and flanker Scott Waldrom in the 15th minute and four David Holwell conversions represented an explosive start and left a shell-shocked Taranaki team in tatters.
Soon to be All Black centre Conrad Smith was the shining light in a star backline. He had a direct hand in the first two tries and three of the Lions’ 10 tries overall, and he scored another one himself.
Following the fourth try scored by Waldrom in the 15th minute, in which he took a Tana Umaga inside pass and scooted 20 minutes to the line, the points kept coming. Umaga scored the fifth try himself in the 20th minute and Holwell converted to take a 35-0 lead. Too their credit Taranaki fought hard and scored a try themselves before halftime and held the Lions to a 38-7 lead at the break.
But captain Rodney So’oialo, Bobo, Smith, Kristian Ormsby and Thomas Waldrom doubled the Lions’ try tally in the second half, in a game that eventually yielded 101 points from both teams.
The win was the perfect send-off for departing first five-eighth David Holwell, off to Leinster in Ireland, and the 30,000 strong crowd reserved its biggest cheer of the night when he was subbed off with several minutes to go. Holwell also played a big part in the resounding win, kicking nine goals from 10 attempts and in the process brought up his 600th point for Wellington.
As well as backs Smith and Umaga and two-try wingers Bobo and Fa’atau, the forwards were cohesive and hunted as a pack all night. Locks Luke Andrews and Ross Kennedy, prop Neemia Tialata and No. 8 So’oialo all had commanding games.
The Lions surged to the top of the 2004 NPC points table with this win. Confirmation of a semi-final position came with the team’s next game with a 65-12 win over Northland at Westpac Stadium, another thrilling victory. This was followed by an efficient 30-0 last round victory over Southland in Invercargill, to book a home semi-final. In the semi-final, the forwards out-muscled their vaunted Waikato opposites and they won 28-16 and booked a home final the following week against Canterbury. Unfortunately the big game experience of Canterbury won out in the final and visiting halfback Justin Marshall scored two tries in a 40-27 win.
Friday's match will be the 33rd NPC fixture between the sides, with Wellington currently ahead on 28 wins to Taranaki’s four in their head-to-head history.
Overall, the pair has clashed 172 times in first-class fixtures going back to 1894, of which Wellington has won 120 Taranaki 46, with five draws and one abandonment (in 1907 at Athletic Park, called off at halftime in adverse weather).
The early matches between Wellington and Taranaki were all tight affairs, the results from their first five meetings between 1894-1898 reading: 0-6, 0-0, 0-6, 3-0 and 0-6.
Wing Ron Jarden scored seven tries in 10 games against Taranaki between 1952-1956, including consecutive braces against them in the second match of two between the Unions in 1954 and the first in 1955.
Lome Fa'atau holds the Wellington record for most tries in NPC matches against Taranaki with eight, and he also holds the record for most tries in an NPC match against Taranaki with three, in 2003.
The Wellington Taranaki match at Hawera in 1962 was the 100th between the unions, but there was no celebration that day for the team’s goal kickers. Taranaki had 14 shots at goal from tries and penalties and missed the lot. Two drop kicks went astray. With four tries, however, Taranaki won 12-8.