Auckland and Wellington ready for battle
October 21, 1999
On Saturday night the NPC First Division will end just as it started. Auckland will play Wellington at Eden Park.
On August 13 Auckland thrashed Wellington 45-6, new coaches Pivac and Fox going back to the future as their side again played with power, pace, ruthlessness, flair and deadly finishing. They have continued to display all of those qualities, a last minute loss in Christchurch and a lucky escape in New Plymouth the only blemishes as they re-asserted their authority over New Zealand provincial rugby.
On August 13 Wellington looked hopeless. In early September they looked worse as they crashed lamely to defeat in Whangarei against a Northland side at the beginning of a resurgence in form.
Coach Graham Mourie is regarded as one of the great All Black captains. Are we seeing the birth of one of the great All Black coaching careers? He has calmly rebuilt confidence, adjusted playing combinations, found a mix which allows aggression to complement finesse. Auckland have played some great rugby this season, but so have Wellington in recent weeks, and we are assured of a great final.
Auckland will be determined to send Michael Jones into retirement with one more final victory. They will also hope their notoriously indifferent public will rise to the occasion and give them the support to which they are entitled. Eroni Clarke 's injury-ravaged year makes him a doubt for the final and whilst there is firepower throughout their back division, his class would be missed. Innes, Ralph and Howlett, in their contrasting ways, have contributed massively to the offensive and defensive capabilities of their side, but it is the in-form fly-half Orene Ai'i who has really caught the eye of late. His coaches, wisely have worked hard to keep his achievements in perspective, his feet firmly on the ground. But he does seem a rare talent, the balance of his running, the dash and daring of his option taking and the decisiveness of his finishing such that when Carlos Spencer does eventually return from injury he will surely struggle to regain his Super 12 place in the Auckland Blues side. Ai'i must be an All Black prospect, but that is only being whispered in public.
The Auckland pack will seek to play at high speed, the quality of phase ball designed to give their backs opportunities to bamboozle a retreating defence. But Wellington will have prepared for that and amongst their forwards possess the skills and the presence to offer the Auks their sternest challenge this season. Yates, Hewitt and Edwards are very solid in the scrum and can be expected to carry the ball forward whenever they get the chance. Afeaki and Waller in the second row are athletic and skilled ball players, Tiatia and Vanisi in the back row producing dynamic and match winning consistency. The loose forward battle with Rush and Jones will be one for rugby purists everywhere.
Beyond the pack, Wellington's chances will hinge on the consistency of the inconsistent Holwell at fly-half. His goal kicking can be dreadful, it was in the early stages of the semi-final against Waikato, but he just about did enough in other aspects of his play to compensate .Scrum-half Jason Spice has had a consistently good season , winger Ali Koko has proved a dangerous opportunist on the intercept, but it is in the centres that Wellington have made the most progress. Early in the season Paul Steinmetz was being used as a crash ball inside centre. It didn't work because that is not his style. Since Mourie started using him as a playmaker, off whom outside centre Jason O'Halloran could run profitable, defence-unlocking angles, the Wellington play has become more complete. Critics and public alike have been reminded just how good and how under-rated, O'Halloran is.
Auckland will start as justifiable favourites, but will not repeat their early season thrashing of Mourie's men. Wellington travel to Eden Park as second favourites, but not as underdogs. They have a good chance of victory and will test the determination of Auckland to return to the top of the provincial summit.