It’s an old cliché, but Wellington highlighted the importance of winning the battle up front as they ran over Counties Manukau 41-10 in Friday’s premiership semifinal at Westpac Stadium.
Frae Wilson, Alapati Leiua (2), Shaun Treeby, Faifili Levave and Ambrose Curtis all dotted down off the back of some solid grunt work by the Lions’ big men, who made amends for their poor showing in Napier.
Trailing 15-0 at the break, Counties coach Tana Umaga looked to improve his side’s chances by changing his front row. And when captain Fritz Lee cut the deficit to 10 with his with his try shortly after it looked to have worked.
But this was Wellington’s night and they piled on 26 unanswered points to secure a home final, against either Canterbury or Auckland.
Ardie Savea made a strong case for his inclusion on the All Blacks end-of-year tour with an impressive all-round showing, while Jeffery Toomaga-Allen did his chances no harm.
There were, however, concerns over his front row parter, John Schwalger, who limped from the field and was later seen in a moon boot.
They led a powerful group of forwards that tackled for most of the first half, but were still able to create opportunities from turnovers.
After being exposed by Southland last week, the Steelers made a strong statement by forcing a turnover on Wellington’s feed at the opening scrum. But that same intensity went missing when the Wellington pack snatched possession at the breakdown before captain Victor Vito set Wilson away for the opening try.
The Lions’ physical dominance in that area once again came to the fore, this time as Counties were hot on attack.
The Steelers got to within 10 metres of the line but coughed up possesion and did not return to the attacking 22 for the rest of the half.
Rey Lee-Lo was forced from the field with a concusion after colliding with Motu Matu’u. However, his midfield partner Bundee Aki looked even more rattled as he dropped a routine pass which handed Wellington their next chance.
The onslaught in the forwards continued and after a kickable penalty was turned down, Samoan international Leiua crossed out wide.
Umaga attempted to find a solution by injecting veteran loosehead Simon Lemalu into the fray at the break.
It coincided with Counties’ next surge into the attacking 22, where Frank Halai went close before Lee finally breached the Wellington wall for a timely five-pointer.
That hard work was quickly undone as Jimmy Tupou was stripped of the ball by second-five Shaun Treeby, who sprinted over 40 metres to score.
Leiua had the boisterous home crowd back on their feet seconds later as the soared through the defence, forcing Counties to commit a professional foul to halt the momentum.
That decision looked to have paid off as Jarrod Firth leapt across the whitewash. However, TMO Graham Hart found that he had received the ball from a forward pass.
That proved to be a fatal blow for the Steelers. Their shoulders dropped even more when Vito pierced the defence before handing on to replacement Faifili Levave to score.
By then the Steelers were well and truly done for the night. They conceded two more tries – to Ambrose Curtis and Leiua – before Toni Pulu closed their season with his effort one minute before time.
Wellington: 41 (Frae Wilson, Alapati Leiua 2, Shaun Treeby, Faifili Levave, Ambrose Curtis tries; Lima Sopoaga 4 con, pen)