As most of us are still catching our breath after one of the most memorable Super Rugby finals I can recall, we look back on a remarkable day in Wellington that reaffirmed the value of the competition even if in its present and proposed future format some serious overhauls are required! Despite the vagaries of the conference system which left much to be desired this year and is already presenting a myriad of headaches for next year’s expanded competition, we got a final that we all deserved and which saw the two most exciting teams in this year’s tournament, New Zealand’s Hurricanes and Highlanders, battle it out for the spoils. It was end to end stuff and the sheer frenetic pace of it all must have been exhausting for the spectators let alone what the players must have felt like at the end of 80 minutes of intense rugby. It was fast with amazingly few stoppages, while at the same time being very physical and South African referee Jaco Peyper did a superb job of ensuring a fair and free-flowing game. It was a thrilling afternoon and a wonderful advertisement for our glorious game!
Hurricanes vs Highlanders
Final Score – Hurricanes 14/Highlanders 21
I always said that ultimately this match would come down to self-belief and as the underdogs in this match the Highlanders did not prove me wrong, and in the end put on a display that can only be described as inspirational. This is not to detract from the Hurricanes, who put in a massive performance, but ultimately once the Highlanders got some real momentum that self-belief and team spirit that has caused this once proud franchise to rise so spectacularly from the ashes in the last two seasons really took hold and they became the team to beat. A resolute defence by the men from Dunedin kept a Hurricanes side at bay in the last quarter despite repeated assaults on the Highlander Fortress. It was edge of the seat stuff, but in the end the Highlanders were just more composed and structured. As a result the Hurricanes suddenly found themselves in a position they weren’t accustomed to and consequently they just didn’t quite have the finishing touches needed at times which only gave the Highlanders even more confidence to pull off the upset of the season!
The first ten minutes of the game saw both teams exploding out of the blocks at a furious pace with the ball going from end to end. It was obvious that the nerves that go with such a big encounter were clearly being settled as both teams made an initial uncharacteristic set of errors as they both tried to match the pace at which the game was unfolding. Within the first ten minutes however, there were two things that immediately stood out that were going to be a problem for the Hurricanes. Firstly, the lack of the phenomenal Ardie Savea due to injury was clearly telling as the Highlanders were clearly winning the battle of the forwards. Savea’s presence for the Hurricanes this year especially in the semi-final was a key part of their success, and his absence was strikingly evident in the final. Secondly, Beauden Barrett’s recent return from injury really hadn’t given him the legs yet to really cope with the kind of intensity on hand in a Super Rugby final. For the most part Barrett had a weak game and his kicking was way below his normally stellar standards, which made the decision to give him the kicking duties instead of the season-long reliability of James Marshall all the more puzzling.
In a game which constantly fluctuated from one end of the field to the other, it was the Highlanders who were looking the more composed side with ball in hand as well as a more settled and structured outfit once they had possession. All too often the Hurricanes would build momentum to then lose the ball just when it looked like they were assured of a try. Aaron Smith, as he has all year, was having a stellar outing for the Highlanders as the “everywhere man” popped up all over the park looking for work. Ben Smith epitomised the role of the inspirational Captain and more than once created some inspired counter attacks as well as being a solid last line of defence. Cool, calm and collected under pressure, Ben Smith’s performance for the Highlanders epitomised that of his team as a collective.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that they were lacking that crucial finishing touch the Hurricanes still had the better of the territory and possession for much of the first half and were constantly threatening the Highlanders try line with constant breaks by Nehe Milner-Skudder, TJ Perenara and Ma’a Nonu leading the charge. In the end, it was inevitable that top try scorer of the competition, TJ Perenara would set up the first try of the game for the Hurricanes with a superb floating pass to put Nonu into space and enable the centre to crash over the line. However, once again Barrett missed with the conversion and the Highlanders were just ahead by a point 6-5.
What happened next, whichever way you look at it was brilliant. Sure it was probably one of the most controversial tries of the tournament, but I still can’t help feeling that the TMO got it right, and in a way you kind of had to award it to Elliot Dixon on the basis of sheer effort if nothing else. Either way you couldn’t help feeling a sense of awe as Elliot Dixon from a superb Aaron Smith offload, at the Hurricanes 22 metre mark dragged four Hurricanes defenders all the way across the try line. The video replay was a 50/50 call but you couldn’t help but admire the sheer audacity and power of the man. Judge for yourself below but either way it is a moment we will be all talking about for weeks to come! On the basis of that effort alone along with his phenomenal work rate all season, don’t be surprised to see Dixon somehow get slotted into the All Black side come September!
So as we headed into the second half it was the Highlanders ahead by 13-5. For me it was here that the X-factor of the Highlanders success this season, their incredible self-belief, kicked in. They may have known they were considered the underdogs but it was now clearly obvious that if they kept up the pressure and stayed focused they could actually win this. Just like the Dixon try, another piece of strength and commitment from the Highlanders resulted in another superb try as Elliot Dixon selflessly offloaded to Waisake Naholo and the winger rolled and flipped his way over two Hurricanes defenders. In a superb passage of play with all the Highlanders working seamlessly and selflessly as a team from one side of the pitch to the other, the try was a just result.
The Hurricanes would soon strike back but once again their finishing just wasn’t there under pressure as evidenced by winger Julian Savea’s agonizing knock-on just millimetres from the try line. They threatened continuously but the pressure was starting to tell as their lineouts had been poor all night, and in the final quarter despite mounting an intense assault on the Highlanders defences, the Highlanders read them well and absorbed the pressure and ensured that the Hurricanes would invariably end up going backwards.
With ten minutes to go, Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, who was having a much better game than his Hurricanes counterpart Beauden Barrett, was replaced by Marty Banks. To add insult to injury, Banks kept threatening in the pocket for a drop goal, and sure enough with three minutes to go Banks slotted one for the Highlanders to finally put the game out of reach for an exhausted Hurricanes team. As South African referee Jaco Peyper who must be commended for allowing a fantastic free-flowing game of rugby, blew the final whistle the joy and jubilation was there for all to see on the faces of an ecstatic and emotional Highlanders team. There was no question there had been two very, very good teams out there on Saturday, but the Highlanders just had the edge and showed us how much of a game winner passion and self belief can be.
It had been an incredible final and had the aura of a World Cup final to it and is certainly a game many of us will remember for a long time to come. Perhaps what it showed more than anything else for me was that as we head into a World Cup, put the right group of individuals together whether or not they are big names, and with the right coaching, commitment and sense of purpose and self-belief then you realise anything is possible. For any of the countries looking to cause an upset this SeptemberOctober, a video of the Highlanders performance in this year’s Super Rugby final should and must be absolutely essential reference material! And for all the twenty participant countries in this year’s Rugby World Cup – you’ve been warned a certain Aaron Smith is coming to a pitch near you!