NZ Cup final
Lilo ready for final hit-out
October 23, 2008
Serge Lilo has recovered from injury to take on the best in the Air NZ Cup final. © Getty Images
Serge Lilo was resigned to having his feet up for the rest of the national provincial rugby season when his left knee was wrenched against Waikato last month.
But after a quicker than expected recovery, the openside flanker has recovered in time to try to ensure Richie McCaw does not run roughshod over Wellington at the breakdown during Saturday night's Air NZ Cup final with Canterbury here at Westpac Stadium.
Lilo has only had 15 minutes of top class rugby since ligaments were damaged when Kevin O'Neill allegedly manhandled him at a ruck during the second half of the match on September 13.
O'Neill faced the judiciary but was subsequently cleared of intentionally injuring Lilo, who was originally prescribed an eight week rehabilitation programme.
Lilo was not convinced, having already experienced similar damage to his right knee at the quarterfinal stage against Southland last season. That injury forced him to miss the remainder of Wellington's run to the finals and this year's Super 14 but, as Lilo suspected, O'Neill's treatment was not as severe.
"With a second knee injury .... I wanted to punch somebody, take my frustrations out on them, then I knew it wasn't as bad as the first one," said Lilo, who took out his anger on gym equipment.
"The doc said `no more games'. I was quite gutted but I worked hard in the gym, did my rehab and came back strong. I'm fortunate I heal quick."
Wellington coach Jamie Joseph was also relieved and, after giving Lilo a brief cameo off the bench against Southland last weekend, had no qualms in promoting the specialist openside to the starting line-up to combat the All Blacks captain.
Acknowledging Lilo's lack of game time -- and the calibre of his counterpart -- Joseph was comfortable he had made the right call, and one that sees Rodney So'oialo return to No 8 and Thomas Waldrom dropped to the bench for his last match for the province.
"It's a big ask for Serge but he's a seven and I feel we need a specialist seven.
"He needed to get through last week and he did that well. This will be another step up for him but he's been there and done that for a few years."
Lilo embraced the challenge, while making no attempt to diminish his assignment. "What can I say? Richie is probably the best in the world at 7. He sets high standards, I just have to play my game and be mentally prepared."
Lilo was grateful to have So'oialo alongside for support. "He's played a bit of seven. He can help me out. It's awesome to have his knowledge and wisdom at the back."
Waldrom, bound for the Crusaders and then Hawke's Bay, was unlucky to miss out but Joseph emphasised he would play an important role off the bench -- as he did when Wellington won the Ranfurly Shield at Eden Park on September 20.
"He will definitely get rugby this weekend because we need to utilise his game as well," he said.
Joseph has made a significant change to his backline, starting Conrad Smith at centre and moving Tamati Ellison in a place to -- meaning All Blacks Ma'a Nonu stays on a wing. Newcastle-bound Tane Tu'ipulotu, second five-eighth when Wellington outlasted Southland 28-19, makes way for Smith. Forwards Neemia Tialata and Jeremy Thrush recovered from knee and shoulder issues to be named in the starting 15.
Canterbury, meanwhile, are still noncommittal about the availability of All Black halfback Andy Ellis. Encouragingly he was able to participate in training today but still faces a fitness test on his right knee tomorrow after damaging ligaments during Canterbury's 31-21 defeat of Hawke's Bay last Saturday.
"He's had a bit of a run around with the boys and come through relatively well," said coach Rob Penney.
Ellis has been bracketed with Tyson Keats but concerns have eased of the knee injuries sustained by centre Casey Laulala and lock Isaac Ross, with both being named. Sean Maitland replaces James Paterson after the regular left wing suffered a serious knee injury in the opening minute against the Magpies.
Wellington: Cory Jane, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear, Piri Weepu (captain), Alby Matthewson, Rodney So'oialo, Serge Lilo, Chris Masoe, Jeremy Thrush, Ross Filipo, John Schwalger, Dane Coles, Neemia Tialata.
Reserves: Ged Robinson, Jacob Ellison, Tim Fairbrother, Thomas Waldrom, Api Naikatini, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Tane Tu'ipulotu. Canterbury: Scott Hamilton, Paul Williams, Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, Sean Maitland, Colin Slade, Andy Ellis/Tyson Keats, Kieran Read (captain), Richie McCaw, Hayden Hopgood, Isaac Ross, Michael Paterson, Greg Somerville, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Steve Fualau, Owen Franks, Nasi Manu, George Whitelock, Tyson Keats/Steve Alfeld, Hamish Gard, Adam Whitelock.