AUCKLAND, NZ – The little team that could just became the little team that did. There was going to be a region in NZ popping their championship cherry no matter what happened in the 2015 Super Rugby Final, but few out there guessed it was going to be the Highlanders. They made sure the agony of being a Hurricanes fan will continue for another long year at least as the home team butchered a number of opportunities to hand the match to a team that simply stuck to what it’s been doing all season: grinding away, playing to their strengths and not giving a second thought to anyone else’s opinion of them. This was an upset in every sense of the word, a very compelling case for the merits of Jamie Joseph and a reason for Tony Brown to finally have a party he’s been planning for the last 16 years.
At Westpac Stadium, Wellington: Highlanders 21 (Elliot Dixon, Waisake Naholo tries, Lima Sopoaga 2 pen, con, Marty Banks dg) Hurricanes 14 (Ma’a Nonu try, Beauden Barrett 3 pen)
Anyone expecting these two sides adopt a more conservative approach in the final would’ve had their theory smashed to bits after a high-energy opening. The ball was run from everywhere, offloads seemed almost mandatory and the only thing that was a surprise was that after 20 minutes the score was only 6-0 to the visitors. That came courtesy of a couple of Lima Sopoaga penalty goals, the first five turning out against the team he grew up supporting. Ma’a Nonu was the first to get on the scoresheet for the Canes, his try in the corner coming off a nice pass from TJ Perenara. Beauden Barrett shanked the conversion, worryingly for Canes fans this was his third miss of the night already. The Canes would’ve had mixed emotions about only being down by 1 going into the break, but Elliot Dixon made sure that the balance of that mix was decidedly sour when he received a pass from Aaron Smith 20 metres out from the try line.
He then proceeded to carve through the Canes on an epic rampage of destruction, carrying Barrett, TJ Perenara, Dane Coles and Nehe Milner-Skudder over the try line. However, Milner-Skudder’s well-placed boot got under the ball and provided the TMO with a huge call to make. Dixon himself looked pretty dubious about the whole affair, so it was a surprise to everyone when ref Jaco Peyper got the call to award the try. It was an incredibly debatable moment, with different camera angles telling a different stray. But it was on the board so the score read 13-5 to the visitors at halftime.
Barrett obviously figured out what was making him miss all those kicks and found his range with a penalty as the game continued to rock along at a lively pace. However, this was answered with an excellent try by Waisake Naholo, who received a pass from Dixon and managed to muscle his way past Julian Savea. There was a chance of redemption shortly after for Savea, however the big winger uncharacteristically dropped a pass cold with the line wide open. Even though Barrett narrowed the gap to 4 points, the flow of the game was most definitely now with the Highlanders. Sopoaga was forced from the field with 10 to go and was replaced by Marty Banks, who may as well have had a sign around his neck saying ‘I’m going to try and kick a drop goal’. The Highlanders forwards gave him three opportunities, the first two Banks faked and ran which almost resulted in a try. The third time he didn’t muck around, slotting the ball through the uprights to push the lead to 7.
The rest of the match was a a case of the Highlanders holding onto the ball and patiently waiting for the hooter to blow. Scenes of ecstatic jubilation ensued among the players and their loyal supporters when it finally did, the stunned home crowd not quite believing that the Canes had been denied.
On reflection, it’s pretty fair to say that even the most one-eyed Highlanders supporter would admit that this was a game where the Canes choked, big time. Taking nothing away from a stout defensive effort and excellent set-piece from the visitors, the Canes did create some wonderful chances that simply weren’t finished off. Savea’s blunder was probably the most notable, but it was hardly the only one. TJ Perenara should’ve gone in early and another promising raid was botched by a handling error by Reggie Goodes. Barrett’s kicking was awful early on and it went a long way to silencing the capacity crowd as the nervousness over a seemingly unlosable game set in. Meanwhile the Highlanders very much played like a team that was completely unconcerned with what was happening on the other side of the ball and stuck to their basic, attractive and ultimately successful game plan. Aaron Smith was again everywhere, Ben Smith chimed in with some good touches and Richard Buckman made life hell for the Canes midfield. But it was the forwards that did the hard work. Sopoaga enjoyed front foot ball the whole game and rewarded the up front effort with an accurate boot. In short, the champions simply, like the story the whole season has been for the Highlanders, played to their strengths and got the result.
It was a sad note for Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to leave on, both played their last games for the Hurricanes and will go down as genuine icons of the team. Smith would’ve desperately loved to have hoisted the trophy for a team that’s gone through basically everything except a championship win during his tine there.
Man Of The Match: Even though his try will most likely be debated util the end of time, Elliot Dixon probably deserved it anyway after an outstanding piece of play. This went on top of a Herculean effort all round, backing up his performance last week and throughout the whole season.
Replay Worthy? Yes, the game probably deserved more points and would’ve had it if the Canes had hung on to the ball, but was still a very good final.
Congratulations to the Highlanders, Super Rugby Champions for 2015.
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