Wellington’s captain fantastic Du’Plessis Kirifi and the province’s fourth-choice hooker combined for a breathtaking, match-clinching play to ensure their second straight victory on Friday.
Tyrone Thompson, gaining a first start in the absence of Asafo Aumua (All Blacks rest), Dane Coles (injured) and James O’Reilly (suspended), galloped 50m to score a stunning try on Sky Stadium as the Lions beat Bay of Plenty 32-10 in Mitre 10 Cup round three.
It was much needed for Wellington who led by 10 with 18 minutes left, but couldn’t quite shake BOP after a messy, error-ridden first hour.
A quick throw to the outstanding Kirifi darting around the front was returned to Thompson who charged past flailing arms and would-be tacklers to slide over to the unbridled joy of his team-mates. He just kept running, and it was soon clear no one was stopping tearaway Tyrone who will have to compete with O’Reilly and possibly Coles for a spot next weekend.
It was game over from there, especially after Bay winger Fa’asui Fuatai flipped Kirifi on his head at a ruck and was red carded in the 68th minute. New boy Ruben Love dived over in the left corner on the siren to ice victory in spectacular style.
Wellington scored five tries to one including a double from No 8 Teariki Ben-Nicholas either side of halftime. It was their second straight victory and sets up a big clash with Canterbury next Saturday, while BOP lost their second from three in 2020, and host Auckland next Friday.
Kirifi was the star of the show, hauling up his team-mates and popping up everywhere in a superb captain’s knock while All Blacks aspirant Peter Umaga-Jensen was a constant menace in midfield.
After a star-studded opening fortnight it was back to provincial rugby reality with the All Blacks pruned from round three.
That hurt Wellington more than their visitors, with Aumua, TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea all sidelined along with older brother Julian Savea, ruled out with a groin injury as his capital comeback hit another hurdle.
Bay of Plenty were missing only All Blacks captain Sam Cane, after their tight 17-14 squeeze over Southland.
Wellington were on the five-day backup from a memorable 39-21 victory over Auckland and it showed in a horror first quarter.
Just 34 seconds in, Bay hooker Nathan Vella galloped 15m almost untouched to score after the hosts dropped the kickoff cold then couldn’t clear their red zone.
The Bay pack had an early upper hand and the Lions got frustrated as their 15th minute try to Thompson was ruled out due to obstruction in a trademark Umaga-Jensen charge.
Captain Kirifi had steam coming from his ears as he forced turnovers then produced a massive tackle that drew a penalty.
It lifted the troops, finally. Wes Goosen ducked and weaved in a telling burst, then Ben-Nicholas strolled over to score untouched from a ruck.
On a 9-4 first half penalty count, Bay’s Dan Hollinshead had the chance to boot them to the lead but missed twice from handy positions as Wellington, somehow, led 12-10 at the break.
They sparked up with some clever kick and regather and quick ball for the impressive Goosen to score from an overlap.
Ben-Nicholas had a second in the 46th minute as the Lions got on a roll; Umaga-Jensen again making the incision and offloading cleverly to his midfield mate Vince Aso.
Still the final pass kept letting Wellington down, despite the energiser bunny performance from Kirifi, and gave the visitors hope as they scrambled and forced turnovers.
It needed a big play to put it to bed for the Lions, and Thompson and his captain delivered as the sparse crowd rose and finally could breathe a little easier.
AT A GLANCE
Wellington 32 (Teariki Ben-Nicholas 2, Wes Goosen, Tyrone Thompson, Ruben Love tries; Jackson Garden-Bachop 2 con, pen) Bay of Plenty 10 (Nathan Vella try; Dan Hollinshead con, pen). HT: 12-10.
MVP: 3 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 2 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 1 Wes Goosen.
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