NPC final: Canterbury v Wellington. Where: Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch. When: Saturday, 7.05pm. Live coverage: Sky Sport, live updates on Stuff.
Du’Plessis Kirifi had to get his hands on a replay of Wellington’s famous triumph over Canterbury in the 2000 NPC final.
Not for motivation – Wellington don’t need to go digging for that, he said – but to simply watch a Lions team packed with star quality edge an All Black-laden Canterbury outfit in arguably the greatest NPC final of all time.
So, 22 years after Wellington won their last title, the Lions’ skipper instructed the team’s IT guru to source a copy, before he sat down over dinner this week and watched the late Jonah Lomu score two tries at a packed Lancaster Park.
Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, the late Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo also pulled on the black and yellow kit that night Wellington won 34-29 in Christchurch.
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“There are some goats [greatest of all time] in that team. JC [Collins] is someone I used to look up to as a kid. I mean, it’s pretty emotional watching that team do their thing and play so well. And to see where those guys ended up being in their careers, ”Kirifi said.
He was 3-years-old at the time. Some of his teammates of him weren’t even born.
Indeed, it’s been some drought for Wellington, who can snap the dry spell by beating 14-times champions Canterbury in Christchurch on Saturday night.
“It’s been too long, bro. Too long, ”Kirifi said ahead of his team’s captain’s run at Ngā Puna Wai Sports Hub in Christchurch on Friday.
But it’s not like Wellington haven’t had chances to add to the four titles they’ve won – they were also crowned champions in 1978, 1981 and 1986.
They’ve lost a whopping eight finals since their last title, including four to Canterbury, and four in as many years between 2006 and 2009.
Like the 2000 triumph, that finals pain hasn’t been a big focus for the Lions this week, but Kirifi admitted it hadn’t been swept under the rug entirely.
“We’ve touched on it, and it’s important we look backward for a little bit of forward momentum. You want to learn from losses, and we’ve had plenty of them. But we didn’t dwell on it, we didn’t focus on those as motivation because we don’t need any more, to be honest.
“We just need to back the tools that we have, and back the work we’ve done all season, and try to do exactly what we’ve done this year to get us to this point.”
Wellington are where they are courtesy of a nine-match winning streak, including an emphatic semifinal trouncing of Auckland last weekend.
The Leo Crowley-coached Lions haven’t been tipped up since Northland edged them 15-6 in round three, the week after Canterbury, also on a nine-match winning streak heading into the final, hammered them 43-10 in Christchurch.
“We are a pretty accountable group,” Kirifi said when asked what had changed after they started the season poorly.
“There’s nowhere to hide on a Monday, especially after a bad game. But even the wins … we still turn up with an attitude to learn, and we hold each other accountable, and I think that’s really where we got some good pay. “
They’re certainly helped by a squad dripping with x-factor – think Ruben Love, Peter Lakai, Asafo Aumua and Julian Savea – and balanced with veterans such as halfback TJ Perenara and lock Dominic Bird, a six-times NPC winner with Canterbury.
“We get on like a house on fire. No egos. Everyone is real down to earth, everyone is relatable. We talk about boys who have won world cups with the All Blacks, you wouldn’t know when you walk into our environment. They are just one of us, and we are one of them, and I think that’s the best part, ”Kirifi said.
“We like to hang out with each other, we struggle to leave training after we’re done for the day. We just want to stay around and hang out. “
All Blacks coach Ian Foster names his squad for the tests against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England.
Wellington: Ruben Love, Julian Savea, Billy Proctor, Riley Higgins, Pepesana Patafilo, Jackson Garden-Bachop, TJ Perenara, Peter Lakai, Du’Plessis Kirifi (c), Caleb Delany, Dominic Bird, James Blackwell, Pekahou Cowan, Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia. Reserves: James O’Reilly, PJ Sheck, Tietie Tuimauga, Taine Plumtree, Keelan Whitman, Richard Judd, Aidan Morgan, Connor Garden-Bachop.
Canterbury: Chay Fihaki, Manasa Mataele, Dallas McLeod, Rameka Poihipi, George Bridge, Fergus Burke, Willi Heinz, Billy Harmon (c), Tom Christie, Corey Kellow, Dominic Gardiner, Zach Gallagher, Owen Franks, Brodie McAlister, Tamaiti Williams. Reserves: George Bell, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Oli Jager, Luke Romano, Reed Prinsep, Mitchell Drummond, Isaiah Punivai, Ngane Punivai.