This years Super Rugby competition culminated in a deserving final involving The Hurricanes playing for the first time at home (Westpac Stadium) They faced the ‘pride of the South’ The Highlanders, each out performing 13 other sides to meet in this 2015 Super Rugby final. Please enjoy my overview of the match build-up, game/result and the next step for New Zealand rugby going towards the end-goal: Rugby World Cup.
Anticipation had been building all week, with a dramatic ‘scramble’ for tickets selling like hens teeth. Hosted in the 37,000 capacity Westpac Stadium, they began selling allocated tickets to members of both The Hurricanes and Highlanders franchises initially, before General Admission tickets were made available on Monday. Those were SOLD OUT in 59 seconds! (the reason I know this, is because I was one of the many who missed out) That was good to see, for an all New Zealand rugby final which would have this much attention where a full house only reinforced how popular this match was going to be.
New coaching staffs and carrying marvelous early form, they finished ranked number one, enjoyed the Bye week and then comprehensively moved past The Brumbies last weekend. They set themselves up for this regions first home-final and hoped to farewell Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Jeremy Thrush who are departing. Again, congratulations on the fantastic accomplishment, but right before the match injury concerns for Ardie Savea came to a head, the team replacing him with Callum Gibbons.
By comparison, the road to the final for The Highlanders built-up from a more measured start. With the good fortune of a run of home matches, they generated wins against some more fancied teams (although they lost both encounters this year against the ‘Canes) and by the time they visited the republic, a solid win and a superb victory in Perth on the return flight, ensured they were well positioned. Completing their fine run with several key NZ conference wins and a tremendous semi-final win over The Waratahs last weekend, it has ensured that this hard working side will enter only their second ever final, with a high degree of self confidence. Those two high-pressure matches being “good preparation” as coach Jamie Joseph put it. Only the loss of Dan Pryor had interrupted their selection.
Neither team is flush with players who have made multiple Super Rugby finals, but each team have a good measure of All Blacks and Super Rugby players to generate calmness under pressure. The Hurricanes last final was back in 2006, and The Highlanders not since 1999, but both teams are supported by two of the more parochial regions [Wellington and Otago] so the build-up this week for each had seen them idolised by their fans and glorified by local media. Super Rugby fans would choose their favourites, meaning many ex-Otago University rugby fans would now be backing the ‘Landers side.
By Saturday, tension was on high and an influx into the capital brought a fun vibe into Wellington. The sea of yellow would dominate a minority of Blue & Gold shirts, but the ‘Landers Army’ would bring their voice. Before the game started, the energy produced might have been enough to power the lighting at the stadium – electricity was running through every person there, and we were set for a sensational night of Super Rugby.
2015 SUPER RUGBY FINAL
Match : Hurricanes V Highlanders
Venue : Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Score : 14-21
“Risk and reward, that will determine who wins this encounter” were the comments from Christian Cullen on RadioSport. That should have prepared us for the excitement to follow, but even myself as a keen NZ rugby fan, I was not prepared for the irrepressible action of this match-up. It was 100% go from the first minute and by the time we reached 80 minutes, the players and fans were all completely out of breathe.
I won’t list every players name, but the individual clashes on the park were exciting to say the least. Nonu facing Richard Buckman, Dane Coles eye-to-eye with Liam Coltman and TJ Perenara matched up against the incumbent All Black Aaron Smith. This feast of rugby would satisfy a rugby purists heart, and in many ways they “cancelled each other out” in the words of Cullen. But the game lived up to all expectations and there were passages of play in the first half that stretched for more than four minutes. Sensational, the ball being moved between forwards and backs, turned over and counter-attack by each side.
The ‘Canes tried many times to run around, not through their opposition, but cover defense from the likes of Josh Hohneck and Patrick Osbourne was just as solid as a ‘Southland shearing shed’. That solidity meant it limited many options that this home side would normally rely on. They played enterprising rugby as usual, but noticeably different from all season, they took penalty kick opportunities handed them – sadly for ‘Canes fans, Beauden Barrett seemed to still have issues converting goals. His kicking percentage was poor to say the least, so that tactic changed during the match.
In the opening twenty minutes, attack and counter-attack was enthralling. Quick taps, scintilating play from a number of players, Brad Shields included. Often a turnover might go 60-70 metres only to be regathered, and begin yet another attack. Watching in a large group, the anticipation when either side made attacking plays was incredible to see. Some watching had to close their eyes, or just throw their hands in the air “what if”
Skipper Ben Smith punched near to the line after 18 minutes only to have the ball stolen, Nehe Milner-Skudder went very close near the end of the quarter. With action like this, we all knew something was coming. When James Marshall broke into Highlanders territory, a couple of phases later Conrad Smith was brought down just metres short. That time the Highlanders forced an error with some robust breakdown work, that Joseph would later credit his forwards for their fantastic work over the entire game. End to end match-play, just amazing to be watching.
A darting run from Perenara was soon ominous, and suitably after good percentage play the departing Nonu crossed out wide to really apply the pressure. Fans of the southern team needed to show resolve, as their team still had a lot to offer. They easily had more possession and when down in ‘Canes territory Elliot Dixon stole lineout ball, it that all culminated in a 20 metre burst from the same player, ‘Man of the Match’ Dixon. Celebrating his 50th cap, he only knows one direction. He very nearly carried three Hurricane players with him to reach out for the chalk. Re-examined by the TMO, with so much on the line, it was delightful for the visitors that they were awarded the controversial decision. Plenty of opinion will be digested this week in Wellington over that call , but their ability to score right on halftime allowed ‘Landers players to walk into the shed with a bouyant mood, leading 5-13.
Carrying momentum is a key principal in any sport, so having their noses in front was beneficial for the visitors, who had the better kicking game and they worked the ball into good territorial advantage, recycling the ball and soon enough the leading try-scorer in Super Rugby got his hands on the ball, and Naholo crossed to extend the lead. Dixon was present again, so the supporting play across the field was reason why they had the superiority [at this stage] Hurricanes needed to respond and substitutions soon brought some fresh legs.
After Barrett converted his second penalty, it brought about his sides best attacking period. Repeatedly entering their opposition 22, unfortunately no reward was taken as it demonstrated the committed defense from The Highlanders. Players were aggressively over the ball, they pushed the line and were lucky to not be called for offside at times by referee Jaco Peyper. The pressure was elevated when the usually reliable Julian Savea dropped the ball with the line virtually open, that visibly affected each team. Almost defiant, Highlanders halfback was his barracking mode and gave his men his usual show of verbal support, and the opposition some great banter.
That deflated their enthusiasm [it seemed to me] and while they sustained some fierce attack, it was not going to put a dent in a very good defensive display across the Highlanders side. Chris Boyd’s men play an ‘optimistic style’ of rugby. They like to take chances, but they acted inside themselves he thought. Asked if they changed their gameplan to suit, he admitted “Yes they had”. Tactics are important, but from a spectators viewpoint, the game was played at such a breakneck pace that a more composed Highlander team reacted best. They retained their systems and high standards of front-on defense. The tackling was ferocious and that impact must have been noticeable on the Richter scale.
After 70 minutes Sopoaga was replaced, as he had sustained a minor leg tweek. His growth from earlier Wellington representation, to now be the backline commander for The Highlanders is testament to his elevation to the All Blacks. While he never cracked the line as Barrett maybe more likely to do, his presence was tremendous (a close runner-up for MOTM) but when you can bring on Marty Banks as a sub, many in Auckland will be envious. He was calm, tackling very well and his offload to prop Ross Geldenhuys was close to sealing the match, until a powerful covering tackle from Savea was felt in Otago.
The game ended as Banks successfully dropped a goal three minutes from time to ensure the decisive seven-point margin, after great lead-up phase play. They ended the game cleverly ‘holding onto the ball’ which was reminiscent of the All Blacks famous win during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. That resolve and smart use of the ball highlighted which side earned the result more. Who had the best understanding of how to retain their lead, great finals footy. The exhaustion of all players involved was clearly evident, and they all would feel the battle scars in the light of day, but only one side could win, so it was cruel to the Hurricanes supporters, players and franchise to leave empty handed. No amount of compliments will console them, but they can all be be proud of their efforts.
In Conrad Smiths own words post-match “I’m gutted for the players and management of the club. I’ll try to help the guys keep perspective and in the end, its just a game of Footy.” Circumspect as ever, his efforts will be credited with bringing his side to the final, but unable to contain a feisty and determined Highlanders side. That was exhibited by his opposite captain Nasi Manu. Having to have special attention on an injured eye, finger and shoulder, nothing was going to stop him from playing in this match. He is credited with bringing core values of rugby back to Highlanders team culture, and he leads by example. His men buy into the team values, and they are truly rugbyunited.
The on-field celebrations by Highlander players and staff during winners prize giving was pleasing to watch. Only in these big events, can fans clearly see the delight on players faces when they achieve their dreams. The emotion and joy showed how over the moon they were with the result. They dug deep, they played with intensity and pride, they deserve to sit back now and be proud of their contribution over the season. This 2015 side created something special, history for that region and might have established themselves at the forefront of Super Rugby. The welcome back to Dunedin will be epic. And extremely well deserved.
No matter who won on the scoreboard, the fact that we had two sides in this final was great for New Zealand rugby. In a World Cup year, the sides that include the 2015 Super Rugby Final players will benefit most and while those men specifically would not be available for this Wednesdays ground-breaking test match between Manu Samoa and the All Blacks in Apia, all the select players who reached the final from both sides will bring much needed big match experience and form.
I think this final year of Super 15 will be sorely missed in 2016. While the two conference system will mean a more streamlined finals series, the break with tradition will take sometime to warm to. Less travel is helpful, but if the Australasia conference is so much stronger than the African one is; or should be when you consider the new franchises, it may distort next years finalists. The two sides involved this season had the first and second points achieved, the two top try scoring sides [sorry Crusaders fans] then if the next seasons competition doesn’t perform as well, then in years to come they may call 2015 it’s ‘zenith’ of Super Rugby.
It was a great match, intense like a big Ranfurly Shield challenge match played at frenetic pace. A great expression of that ‘knock-out rugby’ pressure which NZ rugby must get used to before September [RWC] The representative side must attempt to replicate those intense match conditions but it’s very hard to create that same heart-stopping action. Crucial for this 2015 All Blacks side to develop the strategies and skill-set to win, and defend the Webb Ellis Trophy.