To be a true Wellington sports fan you need to be able to accept raised expectations followed by disappointment. This is a common feature across most codes with professional sides based here, but at the top of the list is the Wellington Lions.
In the years following the 2000 triumph the side has done well. They have made the final on no fewer than seven occasions. And each time they have fallen at the last hurdle in a variety of ways.
The set of seven, presented in chronological order, is as follows:
2003: Auckland 41, Wellington 29
And so it begins. Three seasons after winning the NPC, Wellington took on our friends from the City of Sales full of confidence thanks to some Deans/Mitchell craziness that allowed Christian Cullen to play instead of being at a World Cup in Australia at the time. But the home side was in strutting form, and ran out comfortable winners. Orene Ai’i was the star of the show. It’s not often you get to say that.
2004: Wellington 27, Canterbury 40
This was the one we were meant to win. Top of the table in the round-robin, Wellington were in a home final against Canterbury, who we’d beaten earlier in the season. Ma’a Nonu even wore mascara in preparation for the celebrations. But the All Black-laden Canterbury pack ground it out, before the floodgates opened up in the second half. And Dan Carter laughed at Nonu and pointed at him. But only after the game was safe.
2006: Waikato 37, Wellington 31
It was the first year of the ITM Cup, with a format nobody understood. Never mind, Wellington won its quarter-final in Christchurch of all places. The semi was in Auckland, who were set aside 30–15. Wow; this was just like 2000 all over again. Off to Cow Town for the final, and the bell-ringers ground out the win. Kelleher and Leonard scored three tries between them, and there was a giant burn-out to celebrate, set to the distant sound of roaring chainsaws.
2007: Auckland 23, Wellington 14
The year of rest and rotation meant that even at finals time the All Blacks were not around. Once again, a trip to Christchurch proved no problem when the game wasn’t a final. The final was a trip to Auckland, and the home side prevailed in a dour and completely forgettable match.
2008: Wellington 6, Canterbury 7
Once again, Wellington were minor premiers, and had picked up the Ranfurly Shield along the way after 25 years by beating Auckland 27–0. So the NPC was just a formality, right? Not so; a rubbish night in the capital suited our friends in red and black perfectly, and they ground it out.
2009: Canterbury 28, Wellington 20
This time, the fourth final in succession, it was off to Lancaster Park to play them. And you know it’s not going to be your day when Colin Slade scores two tries in the first half. Catch-up football was required, and it’s always hard doing that there.
That was the sheep-rustlers’ second title in succession. They now have five in a row under their belt, and head to the capital to try in six. The hosts will be trying to avoid a seventh consecutive final defeat.
2013: Wellington 13, Canterbury 29
So after six lost finals in seven years, Wellington took to semi-final exits instead. The minor premiership was sewn up with a round to spare and things looked good. But, once the knockout matches began, it was obvious that the final would be against them yet again. And when it turned out to be a wet day the outcome was predictable. The match was as good as over by half-time.
One day this run of events will be broken, but a true Wellingtonian knows we must not get ahead of ourselves.