Canterbury clinched the 2009 Air New Zealand Cup title with a narrow 28-20 victory over Wellington in Christchurch.
Two tries from fullback Colin Slade and another from winger Sean Maitland saw the hosts clinch back-to-back titles and heap yet more final woe on the Lions who having qualified for five of the last six finals have lost the lot - including three defeats to the Cantabs.
After weathering an early Lions storm, the defending champions took a strangle-hold on the contest with a dominant display in terms of territory and possession. Two tries from Slade put his side on course for their seventh provincial crown leaving Wellington a mountain to climb in the second half.
The visitors raised their game after the break and a try from Alapati Leuia raised hopes of a turnaround before Canterbury were reduced to 14-men when Slade was yellow-carded for an infringement at a ruck. A late score from Scott Fuglistaller brought them within range but a penalty from fly-half Stephen Brett, who finished with 13 points, sealed the win and ensured the home side were celebrating at the final whistle.
Canterbury fielded the same team that beat Hawke's Bay 20-3 in last weekend's semi-finals but All Blacks commitments meant only eight players remained from the starting 15 who lifted the Ranfurly Shield from Wellington in their round robin fixture in August. Wellington, too, stuck to the same combination who showed plenty of pluck to come from behind and beat new Ranfurly Shield holders Southland 34-21 in their last four encounter.
Wellington were unable to find their rhythm as their opposition dominated the contact area and the scrums in the first 40 minutes. Their attacks were dented by slow ball from their rucks which Canterbury's pack attacked en masse.
Slade was outstanding in the first half - he took every high bomb Wellington sent in his direction and was always an option for the man with the ball in free play. His first try came when a promising Wellington attack sparked by wing David Smith was snuffed out in a turnover and lock Sam Whitelock found the fullback at his shoulder. Slade easily galloped 60 metres unchallenged for his score.
The second try came when the ball sped across the backline from a lineout and hit Slade as he chimed in at pace to beat the defence from close range. Weepu, with two inexperienced midfielders in Shaun Treeby and Leuia, outside him was unable to find any gaps to exploit and the ball rarely reached his wings. Smith was busy, but Hosea Gear never got into the game.
With an ample supply of ammunition, Canterbury's backs, celebrating centre Casey Laulala's final match before taking up a contract with Cardiff Blues in Wales, ran with panache throughout the game.
Wellington came out with more intensity for the second half as they chased the scoreboard. Wellington coach Jamie Joseph sent on hard running Dane Coles for hooker Ged Robinson, Fa'atonu Fili for fullback Apoua Stewart, and Fuglistaller for No.8 Mathew Luamanu early in the second half.
The trio added some much needed spark as Wellington abandoned the kicking game and proved more of a threat with ball in hand. Centre Leuia ghosted into the Canterbury backline for an intercept try in the 54th minute which lifted Wellington. But Canterbury's reply was eloquently delivered by Maitland in the 60th minute, finishing off an elegant 40 metre run that left three tacklers for dead for an unconverted try.
Aided by the sin-binning of Slade in the 66th minute, Wellington scored a penalty off Weepu and then a converted try by Fuglistaller. But the Canterbury defence held a desperate Wellington out as the time ticked down and Brett sealed the triumph with a 77th minute penalty.
Wellington skipper Jacob Ellison was left ruing his side's slow start. "I've got nothing to say about that first half - just let us down I think when we didn't fire as much as we wanted. We tried to play them at the kicking game but we weren't getting any ball from the rucks [in that first half] so we started shifting the ball [in the second half] and it paid off but it was just too little too late."
Canterbury captain George Whitelock paid tribute to Wellington's fightback. "It was huge to get the seven-point start early. As you saw Wellington are a top side and came back at the end and we had to dig really deep. I'm so proud of everyone tonight. We put it on the line tonight and we come through."
Canterbury: Colin Slade; Sean Maitland, Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, Tu Umaga-Marshall; Stephen Brett, Tyson Keats; Andrew Olorenshaw, Ti'i Paulo, Peter Borlase, Sam Whitelock, Isaac Ross, Michael Paterson, George Whitelock (capt), Nasi Manu
Replacements: Steve Fualau, Rodney Ah You, Ash Parker, Matt Todd, Willi Heinz, Ryan Crotty, James Paterson
Wellington: Apoua Stewart; David Smith, Alapati Leuia, Shaun Treeby, Hosea Gear; Piri Weepu, Alby Mathewson; John Schwalger, Ged Robinson, Anthony Perenise, Jacob Ellison (capt), Daniel Ramsay, Victor Vito, Serge Lilo, Mathew Luamanu
Replacements: Dane Coles, Arden David-Perrot, Mark Reddish, Scott Fuglistaller, Fa'atonu Fili, Robert Fruean, Daniel Kirkpatrick