What a difference a year makes for NPC finalists
October 21, 2005

History, both recent and ancient, is furthest from the minds of the respective sides in tomorrow's NPC first division rugby final.

A year ago Auckland and Otago were licking their wounds after finishing a woeful seventh and eighth respectively, coaches Pat Lam and Wayne Graham no doubt casting anxious glances over their shoulders.

Both unions kept the faith and the coaches duly weaved their magic this year, timing their runs superbly with decisive semifinal victories last weekend.

No sooner had the dust settled from Otago's 37-22 upset of favourites Canterbury and talk focused on the Eden Park hoodoo.

Remarkably for a side with such a proud history, Otago haven't won an NPC match in Auckland since 1976, and Graham has been reminded of it non-stop this week.

It rang true last year when All Blacks flyer Joe Rokocoko raced over for the winning try on fulltime -- Auckland scoring twice in the final two minutes to win 35-33 at Eden Park.

Firstly, Graham maintains it isn't a hoodoo because Seilala Mapusua, Craig Newby, Filipo Levi, Carl Hayman and Anton Oliver were all Highlanders in 2002 who beat the Blues 20-13 in the Super 12 match at Eden Park.
Secondly, back to back wins over the defending champions, brimming with All Blacks, is as good a form guide as any.

"There's a lot of confidence and self belief in this side. We know what we are capable of," Graham said.
"Beating a side of Canterbury's class away from home has only added to the belief.
" History is made to be rewritten. What has happened in the past will have no real relevance on the outcome on Saturday night -- that will be determined by the players involved."
Continuity at least won't be a problem for the visitors -- Graham named the same 22 for a third consecutive week while Lam made just one key change -- Rokocoko in for Tony Koonwaiyou on the wing.

The test of Graham's coaching ability has come in recent days in trying to take his players' minds off the distractions of finals week, and also get them down from the high of the Canterbury win.
"We were flat early in the week, which is probably understandable.
"We had to give the boys some space. They'd built up to a tremendous high and then needed to get feet back on ground."

Auckland advanced to the final with a 38-24 win against North Harbour in their first home semifinal for six seasons.
The six tries Auckland scored carried their overall tally this year to 38, nine more than Otago.
But Otago boast a better defensive record, having allowed just 19 tries while Auckland conceded 32.

Their superior defensive record is just one reason why Lam believes Otago pose a big threat to his side.
"The history that's been talked about, in terms of Otago's poor record up here, only adds to their motivation," Lam said.
"They have had a fantastic season and have beaten Canterbury twice, which we couldn't do.
"I thought they played super in Christchurch on Friday night, which showed that their earlier win against Canterbury wasn't a fluke.

"If they bring that level of performance with them to the final, which I'm sure they will, they are going to be very hard to beat."
Auckland though are deserved favourites after beating Otago 31-16 at Carisbrook and summing up their season with a dazzling first half onslaught against Harbour last weekend.

Auckland are chasing their 15th title in the 30 years of the NPC first division, while Otago are playing in their sixth final.
Only once have they won a final -- 49-20 over Waikato at Carisbrook in 1998 -- while in two previous Eden Park finals they lost in 1993 and 1995.

Auckland: Brent Ward, Doug Howlett, Mils Muliaina, Isa Nacewa, Joe Rokocoko, Tasesa Lavea, Steve Devine, Jerome Kaino, Daniel Braid, Justin Collins (captain), Ali Williams, Angus Macdonald, John Afoa, Keven Mealamu, Saimone Taumoepeau. Reserves (one to be omitted): John Fonokolafi, Nick White, Kurtis Haiu, Brad Mika, Taniela Moa, Sam Tuitupou, Ben Atiga, Tony Koonwaiyou.
Otago: Craig Clare, Glen Horton, Neil Brew, Seilala Mapusua, Matt Saunders, Nick Evans, Chris Smylie, Grant Webb, Josh Blackie, Craig Newby (captain), James Ryan, Tom Donnelly, Carl Hayman, Anton Oliver, Chris King. Reserves: Jason Macdonald, Grant Polson, Filipo Levi, Alando Soakai, Toby Morland, Ryan Bambry, Jason Shoemark.
Referee: Steve Walsh (North Harbour)

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