The Wellington Lions are reflecting on a positive season that saw them finish second at the end of the round-robin and being back in contention of winning New Zealand domestic rugby’s major competition silverware.
The Lions lost 14-31 to first time champions the Tasman Mako in Saturday’s Mitre 10 Cup Premiership final at Trafalgar Park in Nelson, after defeating Canterbury 30-19 in last weekend’s home semi-final.
Tasman right wing Will Jordan flew through to score the match-sealing try of the final with just a couple of minutes to play, after an entertaining end-to-end match in front of a big home crowd.
Trailing 14-23 at halftime, the Lions pushed the Mako close throughout the second half, but were unable to break through in the face of committed defence.
Long-serving Tasman, Crusaders and former All Blacks prop Wyatt Crockett effected two big turnovers under his posts late in the match with Wellington hot on attack on both occasions, while the bounce of the ball had earlier eluded the Lions
The game kicked off in sunny early evening conditions and the scoreboard operators were busy early.
Tasman first five-eighth Mitchell Hunt had opened the final by kicking two penalties to put the home side ahead 6-0.
Wellington opposite Jackson Garden-Bachop opened the scoring with a penalty the 15th minute after a strong period of attack, that showcased the Lions’ positive intent.
The Mako then scored two tries in quick succession after capitalising on Lions kick-off errors, winning turnovers and right wing Will Jordan (his first) and captain and fullback David Havili scoring tries.
Along with further penalties to Hunt and Garden-Bachop, these tries advanced Tasman’s lead to 23-6.
The Lions poured back on to attack and Garden-Bachop kicked his third penalty.
They then found the whitewash after a strong surge up field and period of phase play, tighthead prop Alex Fidow finishing off the movement with a short pick and drive and barging over the chalk. This closed the score to 23-14 after 30 minutes.
With two minutes to play before halftime, Lions lock James Blackwell went desperately close to scoring a try after more pressure and an inaccurate clearing pass by Tasman. But the bounce of the ball inside the in-goal eluded him and Tasman escaped with a 22 re-start.
The Lions maintained the pressure but the Mako held on to halftime.
The opening exchanges of the second half were even, before Hunt drew first blood with a 49th minute penalty to extend their lead to 26-14.
Hunt missed another penalty kick that would have put Tasman up by 15 points.
Shortly after, Lions left wing turned centre Vince Aso intercepted a pass and took off. He was dragged down in a desperate tackle by Mako wing Jordan tracking back on cover defence. The ball spilled free into the in-goal and replacement wing Pepesana Patafilo chased up and claimed a try.
Referee Glen Jackson consulted with the TMO and the try was ruled out owing to a slight knock-on from Aso as he was tackled.
The Lions won a turnover from the next scrum and attacked the line through 18 phases, but the Mako defence held on once more and this time Crockett made a try-saving turnover.
Crockett effected a second turnover soon after, after another build-up by the Lions that was thwarted under Tasman’s poles.
Replacement hooker James O’Reilly burst through a gap up into the 22 but couldn’t find a support player. Tasman counterattacked and Hunt made a similar break only to be tackled by Kemara Hauiti-Parapara.
Now inside the final 10 minutes, Tasman fullback David Havili missed a long-range penalty and the Lions ran it back and threw caution to the wind. Tasman’s defence held firm and eventually had the final say with Jordan’s match-sealer a minute from time.
The Lions players and coaching staff, including outgoing head coach Chris Gibbes, thanked the fans for their tremendous support this year and look forward to their ongoing support in 2020 when they have another tilt at the title.