AUCKLAND, NZ – Then there were two. After sweeping victories over their respective Australian semi-final opponents last weekend, the Hurricanes and Highlanders will play off for the Super Rugby title of 2015. Cue an ignition of North vs. South Island rivalry, an outpouring of support from the rest of the country as to who their favourite ‘second’ team is and a stoush over people trying to scalp tickets. Yes, the first all-NZ final since 2006 promises to be a cracker, they’re two most entertaining teams so far this year and there’s a host of excellent match ups across the park.
At Westpac Stadium, Wellington: Hurricanes vs. Highlanders #HURvHIG #SupeRugbyFinal
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 Ardie Savea/Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes
Bench: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Callum Gibbins/Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 Matt Proctor
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (vc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (vc), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds
Bench: 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
Last meeting: It was only a few weeks ago that the Canes, fresh off learning that their iconic former player Jerry Collins had been killed in a car accident, absolutely torched the Highlanders in Napier to the tune of 56-20. It would go close to being their best performance of their best season ever, however it’d be foolish to think that the Highlanders won’t be a much sterner test this time around.
Both of these teams have played in one Super Rugby final before, the Hurricanes back when Facebook meant an unfortunate mishap involving something falling off a library shelf and the Highlanders way back when a smartphone meant having one with call-waiting. This game will be played in front of a packed house that can get very, very loud, so both teams should probably do their best to flush out any nerves before kickoff. Home ground advantage hasn’t automatically meant success for the Canes this year though, one of their two losses was at Westpac Stadium (against the Tahs in round 10).
As always, it’s the battle up front that will go a long way to determining the result. The Canes had some alarming problems at set-piece lately, their lineout looked like a puddle of Jackson Pollock’s vomit for a while there, but they managed to make it all click last week against the Brumbies. However, there previous jitters will be enough for the Highlanders to be very much targeting it as an area of weakness. So expect probably a bit more kicking from the visitors as they pile pressure on the home lineout.
However, too much of a reliance on this could very much work into the Canes’ favour. Quick ball off the top has worked very nicely for them when they’ve got it right, mainly because it gives them an opportunity to feed their weapons out wide early and often. They’ll be desperate to get Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder involved at any opportunity given the absolute carnage they’ve been causing all year, so expect plenty of long passes from Beauden Barrett.
The Highlanders don’t lack firepower out wide either, but their gameplan may revolve more around the midfield. Richard Buckman should not be underestimated at second five, his performance last week embarrassed a foolish selection by the Waratahs of the ageing Matt Carraro to mark him. He’ll have his work cut out for him marking Ma’a Nonu and probably having Savea getting launched at him every now and then, though.
Who to watch:
Beauden Barrett vs. Lima Sopoaga: This is huge, Barrett’s decision-making has been nigh-on flawless this year, with more than a few Canes tries originating deep in their own half and in his hands. In contrast, Sopoaga’s boot is crucial. He’s guided the Highlanders up the field all season and his mastering of the cross-kick has resulted in some stunning tries. He’s also got the very un-NZ-like trait of taking drop goal opportunities and doing a pretty good job of it, too.
TJ Perenara vs. Aaron Smith: Two guys enjoying an almost unbelievable run of form. Perenara has managed to score 11 tries this year, but his growing maturity is what has impressed most. Smith, on the other hand, has been so influential that you could make a case for the Highlanders not even being in the position they’re currently in without him.
Conrad Smith vs. Malakai Fekitoa: The master and the apprentice. Smith will bow out of NZ rugby at the end of this year and Fekitoa will most likely be the one to take his place in the All Blacks. The captain of the Hurricanes stands as an enduring icon of a player that’s been developed and valued by his union, while Fekitoa is a testament to the Highlanders’ reliance on the draft and then turning an unwanted player from another franchise into a superstar.
Prediction: While neither team has any sort of championship pedigree, the smart money is on the home team. They’ve played irresistible rugby all year and have clearly been the best side in the comp. It won’t be as much of a beatdown as the last time they played, but it’ll still be the Hurricanes by 10.
I’m very proud to say that my club Poneke FC is fielding two players in the final, Dane Coles and Reggie Goodes. As well as them former Poneke boy Joe Latta is a member of the Highlanders squad. All three are old boys of my old school, Wellington College, who also can count Lima Sopoaga and Jeff To’omaga-Allen, which is a pretty good strike rate. Of course, I have to acknowledge the Oriental-Rongotai club as well, they can boast the representation of Ma’a Nonu, the Savea brothers, Matt Proctor and Mark Reddish. All of them are old boys of another Wellington school, Rongotai College (for you American folks: college is what we call high school).
Let’s hope neither of these teams shy away from the attractive rugby they’ve been playing all year. Last year’s final was probably the best ever in terms of excitement, so they’ve got a tough act to follow. I’ll have a full recap right here, enjoy the footy.
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