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Calm Wellington holds off Southland

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Friday, October 17, 2008    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

The game started brightly with both sides adopting a 'can do' attitude, in the knowledge that their season was over if they didn't come away from the match with a win.

Southland drew first blood on the score sheet after Blair Stewart slotted a penalty from a tight angle on the Wellington 22 metre line to make the scores 3-0 after just 4 minutes.

The lead wasn't to last though, and it was the ever-present wing Hosea Gear who continued his phenomenal try-scoring streak to give the home side the lead on seven minutes.

The wily winger managed to ghost his way through a gap in the Southland backline, and had the pace to beat the fullback and scuttle over in the corner. His achievement broke Bernie Fraser's 27-year provincial try-scoring record.

Southland found itself under extra pressure when substitute second five-eighths Willie Rickards was yellow-carded for killing the ball in the ruck.

The Lions took advantage, and first five-eighths Piri Weepu was able to extend his side's lead in the 26th minute after fullback Cory Jane was tackled late following a promising kick on the counter attack. His 35 metre effort left the scores at 8-3.

The game took a somewhat bizarre twist a few minutes later, with referee Steve Walsh being replaced due to injury. Kelvin Deaker took the reins on 28 minutes as the match continued.

Weepu's trusty boot closed the points scoring for the half on 38 minutes, as the Wellington skipper slotted his second penalty of the night to leave the scores at 11-3 going into the break.

Southland came out of the blocks firing at the beginning of the second stanza, with first five-eights Blair Stewart re-gathering an up-and-under to storm 25 metres into Wellington territory. The Lions were unable to cope with the subsequent pressure and conceded a penalty which Stewart slotted to bring the scores back to 11-6 on 42 minutes.

It only took two minutes for the Lions to storm back, but flanker Chris Masoe was adjudged to have had a foot in touch by the video referee, after his strong run had seen him cross the line in the corner.

It was Southland which struck the next blow though, with wing Pehi Te Whare scoring in the 53rd minute. Stewart showed great vision and hit a perfectly weighted kick in behind the Lions defence. No.8 David Hall was able to snap the ball up and draw the attention of Cory Jane, with his subsequent offload finding Te Whare who galloped home to tie up the scores. Stewart was unable to add the extras, leaving the sides deadlocked at 11-11.

Southland hit the lead six minutes later, with Stewart making amends for his conversion miss by landing a penalty to take the scores to 14-11 in the Stags favour after 59 minutes.

Wellington rallied, and on 68 minutes managed to crash over the Southland line with a bustling piece of forward play, but again the video referee intervened to rule out the try to frustrate the home side.

The pressure finally told in the 69th minute, and once again it was Gear who provided the breakthrough. The mercurial winger bisected the Southland line and managed to bustle over to score and restore his side's lead. Weepu added the extras to leave the scores at 18-14.

Wellington extended their lead to seven points in the 75th minute thanks to Weepu's accurate boot, leaving the Stags a minimum of a converted try to salvage anything from the match.

The Stags threw men forward, but left themselves open on the counter attack. Conrad Smith took full advantage and scored the game's winning try on 78 minutes to steer his side to a 28-14 win and a berth in the Air New Zealand Cup final, leaving the Southlanders to wonder what might have been.

The Stags responded with a try to substitute hooker Matt Holloway after the siren, but unfortunately for the visitors it was nothing more than a consolation.

Wellington 28 (Hosea Gear 2, Conrad Smith tries, Piri Weepu 2 con, 3 pen) Southland14 (Pehi Te Whare, Matt Holloway tries, Stewart 3 pen)

HT 11-3