Wellington Lions out to continue their play-off push

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The Wellington Lions will continue their push for a Mitre 10 Cup Premiership semi-final spot as they take on Northland at Westpac Stadium on Saturday.

The two sides head into the match after contrasting results, Wellington putting pace on Auckland at Eden Park while the Taniwha suffered a heavy loss to Bay of Plenty.

Respective form and standings on the Premiership and Championship tables would suggest the Lions will start as strong favourites.

The two unions from either end of the North Island first met 80 years ago and to date have met 38 times for 27 wins to Wellington and nine to Northland, with two draws.

Prior to the start of the NPC competition starting in 1976, their meetings had been sparse. The Northlanders won or drew all their first five encounters, winning in 1939, 1961 and 1967 and drawing in 1954 and 1970.

Heading into this Saturday’s game, the Lions have won four straight over Northland. They didn’t play last year, but met twice in 2017, with the Lions winning 36-18 and then 49-21 in the Championship semi-final.

Northland’s last win over Wellington was 35-5 in 2014 and before that had last beaten Wellington in 2000, which was the first time a visiting provincial team won at Westpac Stadium.

Despite the Lions mostly having the upper hand, Northland have always proven strong opposition for Wellington teams, and final scores of a number of their matches have often not told the stories of how they were played.

In their 1984 fixture, Wellington scored 11 tries in winning 58-12, but they led just 16-8 at halftime and wind at the old Athletic Park ground at Newtown wasn’t a factor. Prop Brian McGratten led the way in the second half with a hat-trick of tries which was a record by a prop in the Division 1 NPC.

In 2004 at Westpac Stadium, the Lions won 65-12. The Taniwha were right in the game well into the second half and trailed only 23-12 heading into the last quarter. But the Lions roared in the second half and they ran in a further six unanswered tries.

First five-eighth Riki Flutey scored two of nine tries, while flanker Scott Waldrom's try capped a sweeping length of the field movement from a defensive 5-metre scrum and was one of the most popular tries all season.

In 2010 at Westpac Stadium, the Lions won 31-28, with a late try to prop John Schwalger the difference. Schwalger’s try was Wellington’s 100th NPC competition try against Northland and capped off a comeback that had seen the Northland leading 25-10 at halftime.

A similar pattern continued in some subsequent meetings, including the most recent match they have contested, the 2017 Championship semi-final.

The scoreboard at the end had Wellington winning 49-21. But it didn’t come easy at Westpac Stadium. 

The Taniwha came out firing and they led 14-6 late in the first half. Northland then lost a player to the sin-bin and midfielders Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Wes Goosen scored to put the Lions up 23-14. It wasn’t until Julian Savea made a telling break that set up a try to Trent Renata that the Lions could breathe easier, and this time it was another prop - Tolu Fahamokioa – who barged over to make the game safe for Wellington.

With a group of young players set on positive rugby and with perhaps little to lose, will the Taniwha contribute to another similar contest this time around?

The match kicks off on Saturday at 5.05pm, following the Wellington Pride versus Waikato Women’s Farah Palmer Cup match from 2.35pm.