Five lessons from the Vodacom Super Rugby final, according to SIMON BORCHARDT.
It is possible to win a 15-team Super Rugby tournament the hard way
The Highlanders became the first team to lift the Super Rugby trophy, since the tournament expanded in 2011, having finished outside the top two on the overall log. That meant they had to win three play-off matches to become champions, which they did with a home qualifying play-off win against the Chiefs, an away semi-final win against the defending champion Waratahs and then victory in the final against a Hurricanes team that had topped the overall log. Sure, the Highlanders did not have to travel to South Africa at any time during the play-offs, but to win three consecutive do-or-die games is still a fantastic achievement.
Pragmatic rugby wins finals
The Highlanders made 438 running metres in the Super Rugby final, compared to the Hurricanes' 711, and kicked 31 times from hand compared to their opponents' 17. Yet it was the visitors who ended up scoring two tries to one and winning the match 21-14. The Hurricanes ran the ball from all parts of the field during a first half that saw them score just five points, and while a change of tactics in the second brought them back into the game, the Highlanders were able to hold them off. The Dunedin-based franchise had kicked intelligently all season, with Aaron Smith's box kicks, Lima Sopoaga's kicks to the corner and Ben Smith's up and unders helping them win the territorial battle and put their opponents under pressure, and they did it again to great effect in the final. The Highlanders' forwards also outshone an All Blacks-laden Hurricanes pack and, in the absence of the injured Ardie Savea, they dominated the breakdown, making 12 turnovers. While the Hurricanes' entertaining approach had got them to the top of the overall log and pleased the rugby romantics, the Highlanders' showed that a pragmatic approach works best in a final when the pressure is really on.
Good goal-kicking wins finals
Beauden Barrett missed two penalties and a conversion in the first half of Saturday's final, which cost his team eight points. While the Hurricanes flyhalf did find his radar in the second half, succeeding with all three of his penalty attempts, those early misses proved crucial as the Canes fell seven points short. While Highlanders No 10 Lima Sopoaga missed a penalty in the second half, the two he kicked during the first half gave his side a 6-0 lead and he also nailed a touchline conversion that made it 13-5 at the break.
A drop goal can help win a final
A dozen one-pass crashes saw the Highlanders wind down the clock and get close to the Hurricanes 22, before sending the ball back to Marty Banks, who slotted a 78th-minute drop goal. That meant the Canes had to score a converted try to take the game into extra time, but a knock-on from the quick restart prevented that from happening. Drop goals may be frowned upon by some, but they remain a good way to win a final.
A big player must take the big moment
Julian Savea will forever be haunted by what happened in the 61st minute of the final when his side was trailing 18-11. The Hurricanes stole a lineout and, five phases later, went wide, with Brad Shields putting Savea away for what looked to be a certain try in the corner. However, the winger dropped the ball cold, with the look on his face, and the reaction of the Canes coaches, saying it all.
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