The Highlanders produced a superior physical and tactical display to beat the Hurricanes 21-14 in the Vodacom Super Rugby final in Wellington on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
There was a moment of controversy. There was drama aplenty. The final result, however, was a true reflection of proceedings.
There should be no argument that the Highlanders deserved to win this decider, and ultimately their first-ever Super Rugby title. As the record would suggest, they’ve had to do things the hard way since advancing to the play-offs. A win against the free-running Chiefs in the qualifying play-off; a win against the 2014 champions in the semi-final in Sydney, and finally a win against the tournament favourites in the championship game.
The latter victory sees them breaking a couple of records in this 15-team competition. Never before has a team that finished lower than second on the overall log gone on to win the trophy. Never before has a visiting team won the final.
The Highlanders played the smarter brand of rugby in the semi-final against the Waratahs in Sydney. They carried that game plan through to the decider in Wellington, and implemented it superbly.
Their blue-collar pack delivered a breakdown performance for the ages, and their chief decision-makers at 9,10, and 15 used turnover possession to devastating effect. Lima Sopoaga was in outstanding goal-kicking form, at least in the first half, and ensured that the Highlanders converted the bulk of their scoring chances into points.
The Hurricanes missed openside flanker Ardie Savea, who withdrew with an injury before kick-off. Their pack was largely outplayed at the rucks and collisions, and their set-piece performance was erratic. This impacted on their halfbacks, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett. That dangerous backline was also kept relatively quiet.
There will be questions in the aftermath about their high-risk game plan. The Hurricanes scored just five points in the first half. They played with plenty of intent, but struggled to penetrate the defence.
By contrast, the Highlanders were the more conservative and patient of the teams. They waited for the Hurricanes to attack, and then flooded the breakdown. They made some crucial steals and in many instances used these turnovers to launch the counter-attack.
Their kicking game was another key feature. Aaron Smith lived up to his reputation as the form scrumhalf in world rugby, and Sopoaga made a statement in this high-stakes game. Sopoaga kicked some crucial goals over the course of this contest, but his kicking out of hand was just as important. As a unit, the Highlanders kicked intelligently, often finding space or creating a contest in the air.
The Hurricanes had no response to this onslaught. They endeavoured to keep the ball in hand, and were their own worst enemies when they dropped the ball in contact or conceded the turnover at the ensuing ruck.
When they had a chance to kick for goal, Barrett battled with the pressure. The All Black flyhalf missed three goal attempts (eight points on the night). That performance will not encourage the All Blacks coaches ahead of the World Cup.
Some Hurricanes fans may look at the final scoreline, and argue their team would have won but for a controversial try awarded to the Highlanders at the end of the first half. Highlanders flanker Elliot Dixon repelled two Hurricanes defenders, and dragged three more over the tryline. In the act of placing the ball, Dixon appeared to lose it. His immediate reaction seemed to confirm this. Dixon winced as if he had blown a massive opportunity.
However, TMO Ben Skeen ruled that Dixon had got the ball down, and the try stood. Sopoaga’s conversion from the touchline saw the Highlanders going into half-time with a handy 13-5 lead.
Barrett converted a penalty attempt at the start of the second half, but it was clear even then that the hosts were chasing the game. They had got their tactics wrong in the first half, turning down shots at goal in favour of a push for the line. In the second stanza, they took the three when it was on offer.
The Highlanders then made one big chance count at the other end. A sustained period on attack in Hurricanes territory culminated in a try for Waisake Naholo. That took the Highlanders 10 points clear of the hosts.
Barrett kicked two more penalty goals, as the visitors started to feel the pressure. After missing a couple of shots on goal, Sopoaga was replaced by Marty Banks.
The Highlanders held their ground of defence in that last quarter. They then played their way upfield, and so nearly scored a further try through South African prop Ross Geldenhuys. Only a desperate tackle by Julian Savea stopped the movement, and kept the hosts’ chances alive.
Banks struck a big blow to those hopes when he sunk a drop goal in the 78th minute. The Highlanders managed to keep their composure in the dying seconds. They hung on for a famous victory which equated to their first title in the history of the competition.
Hurricanes – Try: Ma'a Nonu. Penalties: Beauden Barrett (3).
Highlanders – Tries: Elliot Dixon, Waisake Naholo. Conversion: Lima Sopoaga. Penalties: Sopoaga (2). Drop goal: Marty Banks.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 Matt Proctor.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Gareth Evans, 22 Fumiaki Tanaka, 23 Marty Banks.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images