The Hurricanes turned defence into attack to beat the Lions 20-3 in Wellington on Saturday and claim their first Super Rugby title. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The All Blacks are the best team in the world. While they are often praised for their attack, not enough is said about their defence. Indeed, it was the New Zealanders’ superior defence and line-kicking that earned them the 2011 and 2015 World Cup titles, as well as a number of Test victories in-between.
In the Super Rugby final at the Cake Tin, the Hurricanes showed a similar appreciation for a formula that wins big matches and titles. They rattled the Lions with their kamikaze-style rush defence. Loose forwards Ardie Savea, Brad Shields and Victor Vito were in fearsome form. They often succeeded in winning a collision against their Lions counterparts.
The rain as well as the driving wind influenced the approach of both teams. Beauden Barrett opted to use the boot as an attacking weapon on more than one occasion. Elton Jantjies favoured the high-ball strategy that did work albeit to a limited degree.
The difference between the two players, and ultimately the two teams, was that Barrett was the more accurate in terms of his execution. The Hurricanes didn’t have much possession in the first half, but they won the territorial battle due to Barrett’s well-placed grubbers and probes into open space.
The Lions had their chances on attack, at least in the sense that they enjoyed several opportunities in possession deep inside the Hurricanes’ half. The hosts managed to absorb much of that pressure by winning the collisions. They rushed up to meet the Lions in the subsequent phases, and thus the visitors spent much of the game behind the gainline.
Competing in their first Super Rugby final, the Lions battled to win the big moments. They made some big mistakes when put under pressure. The Lions leaders took some poor decisions that cost the team scoring chances.
In the 22nd minute, the Lions found themselves in possession but on the back foot inside their own 22m area. Jantjies threw a wild pass to Lionel Mapoe, who did well to control it. Mapoe’s next option was to kick an attacking grubber. The No 13 did not make a good connection, and Cory Jane snatched the ball, slip-fielder style. The Hurricanes winger set off immediately, handed off Franco Mostert, and scored the game’s first try.
In the seventh minute, Jane had scored after collecting a cross-kick by Barrett, but the try had been disallowed as there was a knock-on in a preceding phase. On this occasion, however, there was to be no let-off for the Lions.
The Lions scrum started well, and forced the Hurricanes to concede several penalties at this set piece. In the 33rd minute, the visitors overplayed their hand, and possibly underestimated the Hurricanes, when they won a penalty in the hosts’ 22 and opted for a scrum.
The Hurricanes responded by smashing the Lions forwards backwards. Referee Glen Jackson awarded the hosts a penalty. It was a big moment in the match. The Hurricanes showed that they could stand up to the Lions scrum.
The Hurricanes went into the break with a 10-3 lead. It was a substantial advantage considering the wet conditions, and considering that the Lions were always likely to tire in the second stanza. Warren Whiteley’s charges were forced to travel 12,000km from Johannesburg to Wellington earlier this week.
In the 52nd minute, Barrett held his nerve to nail a penalty goal from a difficult angle. The score extended the Hurricanes’ lead to 10 points, and meant that the Lions would have to chase the game.
The Lions continued to fight as the game raced towards its climax. They received a chance to shoot for goal in the 64th minute, but Jantjies pushed his attempt wide, much to the partisan crowd’s delight.
Barrett continued to boot the ball deep and drive the Lions back into their own territory. The visitors attempted to launch counter-attacks from their own 22m area, but were thwarted time and again by the aggressive and accurate Hurricanes defence.
Fittingly, it was the Hurricanes defence that was responsible for the decisive score in the 68th minute. The Lions lost control of the ball at a lineout deep in their own 22m area, and the Hurricanes defenders came through to apply the pressure and force the ball beyond the tryline.
Barrett was the man who beat the cover defender, his opposite number Jantjies, to the loose ball. The Hurricanes pivot then converted his own try to maintain his perfect goal-kicking record and finish a memorable final with a personal haul of 15 points.
The hosts also did enough to deny the Lions, the top try-scorers in this year’s competition, a five-pointer at the death. The visitors did themselves no favours, though. After winning a penalty in the 76th minute, the feed to the ensuing lineout by Akker van der Merwe was not straight.
The title win marks the Hurricanes’ first in Super Rugby history. The result also means that all five New Zealand sides have now won the title since the tournament’s inception in 1996. In fact, the Kiwis have claimed 14 of the 21 titles on offer during that period.
Hurricanes – Tries: Cory Jane, Beauden Barrett. Conversion: Barrett (2). Penalties: Barrett (2).
Lions – Penalty: Elton Jantjies.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Loni Uhila.
Subs: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Ruan Ackermann, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt.
Photo: Simon Watts/Getty Images