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The Western Stormers square off against the Golden Lions in a blockbuster South African derby while Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett sets a match record in Super Rugby this weekend.
The Canterbury Crusaders and Stormers are the only unbeaten sides remaining going into round eight of the competition, which next year will revert to a 15-team format from its current 18.
The fallout from governing body SANZAAR’s announcement to axe three teams — two from South Africa and one from Australia — has dominated the past week.
Threatened franchise Western Force have launched legal action against Australian rugby chiefs.
Seven-times champion Crusaders ease back into the fray following a bye by hosting the Sunwolves who won their first match of the season last week.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is back for his first outing of the season having recovered from wrist surgery.
And the match will be a significant milestone for fellow All Black Crockett as he makes a record 176th appearance in Super Rugby.
The 34-year-old will overtake former All Black Keven Mealamu’s record of 175.
SANZAAR chief Andy Marinos described Crockett’s record as “a tremendous achievement for a player who is at the coal face of one of the hardest and most competitive rugby competitions in the world”.
The Crusaders feel comfortable enough to make a raft of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs a fortnight ago. Just five players of their 23 remain in the same position
In the showdown between the top two South African sides, the Stormers are brimming with confidence after inflicting the first loss of the season on the Waikato Chiefs last week while the Lions are coming off a bye.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann believes the week off came at the right time as it allowed several key players including Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Ackermann, and Elton Jantjies to get over niggling injuries.
The Stormers “are the team to beat in South Africa and it’s going to take something special to get the better of them at Newlands,” Ackermann said.
“They’re playing an exciting brand of rugby and their skill levels are extremely high so it’s going to be a huge challenge going there.”
The Stormers, though, have injury woes after the punishing outing against the Chiefs with flanker Cobus Wiese and locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth unable to train early in the week.
They are also in a tough sequence of matches with home games against the Chiefs and Lions to be followed by a trip to New Zealand to face the Crusaders, Otago Highlanders and Wellington Hurricanes.
The Chiefs, looking to get their season back on track, are in Bloemfontein to face a Central Cheetahs side desperate to prove they deserve to survive the Super Rugby culling process.
“These are challenging and uncertain times,” the Cheetahs said in a statement this week.
“We strongly believe that through an honest and fair process we stand a strong chance of retaining our Super Rugby status.”
The defending champion Wellington Hurricanes are in Auckland to face a Blues side which has Sonny Bill Williams starting in a new unique jersey which does not feature the logo of team sponsor Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) to conform with his Muslim beliefs.
But Williams has agreed to wear, instead, the logo of child health service Plunket whose principal sponsor is the BNZ.
In the remaining matches, top Australian side ACT Brumbies play the struggling Melbourne Rebels, who along with Western Force are under threat of being kicked out of the 2018 competition.
Elsewhere, the Queensland Reds are at home to the Southern Kings and the Northern Bulls return to South Africa after an unsuccessful road trip to host the Jaguares.
All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett has escaped further punishment after receiving a red card in the Wellington Hurricanes’ Super Rugby win over NSW Waratahs last week.
The current World Rugby player of the year was sent off late in the match after receiving two yellow cards for deliberately knocking down the ball during Waratahs’ attacks.
The SANZAAR judiciary said it took Barrett’s exemplary disciplinary record into account before clearing him to play against the Auckland Blues this weekend.
“The player is therefore free to play and will serve no suspension,” it said in a ruling issued late Monday.
Barrett argued after the match that he was trying to intercept the ball but poor technique meant he knocked it down, rather than taking possession.
Waratahs prop Sekope Kepu was banned for one week after earning a yellow card in the same match for a dangerous tackle.
The judiciary said he received the suspension because it was his third yellow this season for similar offences.
The Waikato Chiefs have been told to get their act together for their Super Rugby clash with the Northern Bulls after an unconvincing win over the struggling Melbourne Rebels.
Coach Dave Rennie read the riot act to the two-time champions after they needed a late burst to overcome Australia’s bottom-placed team in their last outing.
“There were some carefully chosen words,” Rennie said, after showing his players images from the Rebels match. “When the guys looked at it, they were pretty embarrassed.”
The Chiefs return from a bye with a record of four wins out of four games so far to lie second in the New Zealand conference behind the Canterbury Crusaders.
The Crusaders will also need to improve after being sent to scrum school following a series of collapses in their recent wins against the Queensland Reds and Western Force.
Despite having a pack bulging with All Blacks, the seven-time champions have been put through a refresher course in scrum techniques ahead of their game against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney.
“We want it to be a contest, and we don’t want re-sets like that,” said assistant forwards coach Jason Ryan.
The Wellington Hurricanes will need to contend with the after-effects of Cyclone Debbie as they take on the Queensland Reds in storm-soaked Brisbane.
As well as the severe weather, the Hurricanes will also have to cope with the loss of captain and All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, who is nursing an injured knee.
Meanwhile the Western Stormers revealed an unusual approach to training ahead of their game against the unfancied Central Cheetahs.
While the Cheetahs may not pose formidable opposition, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is taking a long-term view and preparing his side as if facing a New Zealand franchise.
A quirk of the draw meant the Stormers did not play a New Zealand side last year until the quarter-finals when thrashed 60-21 by the Chiefs.
They play all five New Zealand teams this year, starting with the Chiefs next weekend, and flyhalf Robert du Preez said preparations were already under way.
“Our training has changed a lot,” Du Preez said. “Every Thursday we do what we call a ‘Kiwi Day’ just to prepare for them because we knew that they pose a different threat.
“We go hard at each other on Thursdays.”
In the congested Africa 2 conference, the Golden Lions play the Coastal Sharks with both sides having one loss from five outings so far.
Argentina’s Jaguares, with a similar record, have a bye and will drop down the ladder as a result.
In Australia, the ACT Brumbies also have a bye leaving the way open for the Waratahs and the Reds to challenge them for the top spot.
The remaining two matches see the Otago Highlanders play the Rebels in Dunedin on Friday, while the Auckland Blues host the Western Force on Saturday.
Defending champions Wellington Hurricanes are relishing the prospect of “brutal” clash with the Waikato Chiefs on Friday in what will be their first real test of the Super rugby season.
“It’s going to be a real scrap,” Hurricanes assistant coach Richard Watt said of the showdown between the only two sides to take maximum points from the first two rounds.
After scoring 24 tries and amassing 154 points against the Sunwolves and Melbourne Rebels, Watt said the Hurricanes were looking forward to the intensity of playing a top New Zealand side.
“The boys love these home games and they hate losing to each other,” he said, describing New Zealand derbies as “pretty brutal” affairs.
“You don’t even have to mention anything to the boys this week. They’re so up for this game.”
The Chiefs, who had to work hard for their wins over the Otago Highlanders and Auckland Blues, have received a boost this week with the return of flanker Sam Cane who will clash with his All Blacks understudy Ardie Savea.
While the battle of the New Zealand titans headlines round three, Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has taken a long-term view to tip South Africa’s Golden Lions as the likely winners of the competition.
The unbeaten Lions have sent a depleted squad to Argentina to play the Jaguares in the Africa 2 conference while Africa 1 leaders Western Stormers are away to the bottom-ranked Southern Kings.
The only other unbeaten side after two rounds, the Canterbury Crusaders, travel to Queensland to face the Reds on Saturday.
- Lions favoured -
Boyd believes the complicated Super rugby draw which sees the Lions avoid all the New Zealand sides during the conference phase should see the South Africans top the regular season and be set to host the final.
The Lions, beaten by the Hurricanes in last year’s final, are without five Springboks for their Jaguares match.
It was the banana-skin game for them last year when they were also under strength and lost to the Jaguares in the final pool match, costing them the top spot in the playoffs.
The Stormers should be untroubled in maintaining their unbeaten start to the season when they face the Kings in Port Elizabeth and the Crusaders are expected to be too strong for the Reds in Brisbane.
The test for the Reds, up against an All Blacks-laden pack, is how they bounce back from their surprise loss to the Western Force last week.
“Every player should be highly motivated to compete for every minute of this game. It’s what you have to do against the Crusaders, because if you are not as relentless as they are, you are going to pay,” Reds coach Nick Stiles said.
Two years ago the Otago Highlanders were Super champions but this year they have been hard hit by injuries, are winless after two games and will be hard pressed to get on the board against the Auckland Blues.
Fresh from beating the Reds last week, the Force head to Canberra to play the ACT Brumbies who are trying to avoid a hat-trick of losses for the first time since 2011.
The Waratahs, with Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley still sidelined by concussion symptoms, are in South Africa against the Coastal Sharks while the Central Cheetahs are at home to the luckless Sunwolves.
Defending Super Rugby champions the Wellington Hurricanes trounced the Melbourne Rebels 71-6 Saturday, with returning All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Nehe Milner-Skudder playing starring roles.
Milner-Skudder scored three of the Hurricanes’ 11 unanswered tries, while Barrett set up three and kicked six conversions.
It was the Hurricanes second highest score ever, bettered only by the 83 they scored against the Sunwolves last week in Tokyo, when they notched 13 tries.
“When we were quite direct and kept things simple, we opened them up,” said captain Dane Coles, who sat out the Sunwolves game, along with Barrett and Milner-Skudder.
“It’s very pleasing, the attack’s going good and we’re going to enjoy the win.”
It was the Rebels, who received a tongue-lashing from coach Tony McGahan after a 56-18 loss to the Auckland Blues last week, who made the early running.
They were rewarded with two penalties to Reece Hodge before Barrett and Milner-Skudder sparked the Hurricanes to life in the 17th minute.
Barrett drew in three tacklers then sent a short pass to Milner-Skudder, who showed no sign of rust after 12 months out with a shoulder injury, launching into a trademark sidestep before crossing the line.
Barrett’s chip kick set up winger Vince Aso for the Hurricanes’ second a few minutes later.
Ngani Laumape made it three on the back of a dominant Hurricanes scrum then Aso broke down the wing with TJ Perenara to add a fourth.
It was Aso’s second brace in as many matches but the Hurricanes were not done, with Barrett setting up another try before half-time, this time for Matt Proctor.
Ardie Savea piled on more misery for the Rebels two minutes after the restart when his older brother Julian set him up for a five-pointer.
Hurricanes players were lining up to score by this stage, with Reed Prinsep and Julian Savea dotting down tries before Milner-Skudder completed his hat-trick.
He outpaced the defence to dive into the corner for his second and his third came after a surging run from Jordie Barrett.
Laumape then intercepted a loose pass and dashed two-thirds the length of the field for his second to complete a horror night for the Rebels.
A new Super Rugby season kicks off this week with bosses pledging to tackle its unwieldy conference structure, exhausting travel schedules and lopsided contests.
There will be a first fixture in Samoa in June, meaning the 2017 Super Rugby season will now straddle 17 time zones and four continents.
The competition will retain the much-criticised four conference format, while tweaking kick-off times to trial Thursday night matches and increase the number of afternoon games.
“Our biggest challenge is obviously the geographical expanse we’ve got to cover,” said Andy Marinos, the chief executive of Super Rugby’s governing body SANZAAR, while promising that team schedules would be managed better this year.
“We’ve had some key learnings out of 2016 that we can implement into 2017 around how we manage the players during the week and how we work the travel schedule,” he said.
The far-flung tournament has its critics, notably England’s former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, who bluntly observed last season: “Some of the games put me to sleep.”
With six franchises in South Africa and five each in Australia and New Zealand, plus Japan’s Sunwolves, and Argentina’s Jaguares, organisers are wrestling with the conflicting interests of the five competing nations.
Each Super Rugby team plays 15 matches and has two byes in the 17-round regular season. The competition final is on August 5 with a short mid-season break in June and July.
The teething problems of last year’s expansion to 18 teams have forced a rethink with the heads of Australian, New Zealand, South African and Argentinian rugby convening in early March to finalise competition changes for 2018 after an urgent strategic review was announced by Marinos last month.
South Africa, with just three titles in the 21 seasons of Super Rugby, are mostly concerned about their arduous travel schedules.
Oregan Hoskins, who resigned as president of SA Rugby last August, stated South Africa would be better off aligning to European leagues rather than with SANZAAR, which would mean few time differences for their matches.
Alternatives to the confusing four-conference competition could include a return to 15 teams, with Australia dropping one team and South Africa cutting two.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) chief executive Steve Tew has called for patience as the problems are tackled.
“Long-term if the foundations are laid we may be able to expand the game in a way that’s more sensible from a travel, player workload, cost and time zone point of view, but that’s going to take some time,” Tew said.
NZR’s main problem is the guaranteed home advantage for the four conference winners after New Zealand teams occupied four of the top five places on the overall standings in 2016.
NZR are pushing instead for a straight top-eight play-off system which Tew argues would produce a fairer outcome. But the proposal is being opposed by Australia and South Africa.
“I’m stubborn and we’ll keep plugging away because we think it makes much more sense,” Tew said.
“It makes it a lot easier for the fans. They can almost disregard the complications of the conferences and just look at the log and say ‘is my team in the top eight’.”
Australia are not happy with the reduced number of money-spinning local derbies.
The Waratahs will only play their century-long rivals Queensland once this season and there is a solitary Waratahs-Brumbies match.
Super Rugby will further expand its boundaries when the Auckland Blues playing the Queensland Reds in Samoa in June while the Waikato Chiefs will take their game with the Canterbury Crusaders to Fiji.
With 15 players of Samoan heritage in Blues squad, American Samoa-born Jerome Kaino said they were looking forward to it.
“The possibility of having a fixture in the islands every year is really special for us, but also for Samoa, Fiji, whatever nation it is because they offer so much to our game here in New Zealand and it’s important that we give back,” Kaino said.
The new season kicks off with the Melbourne Rebels playing Auckland at home on Thursday, while the Wellington Hurricanes open their title defence against the Sunwolves in Tokyo on Saturday.
The Wellington Hurricanes ended a 20-year nightmare Saturday when Beauden Barrett in scintillating form engineered a 20-3 victory over the Golden Lions on Saturday for their maiden Super Rugby title.
On a miserable, wet night in Wellington, man-of-the-match Barrett was everywhere for the Hurricanes and settled the outcome of the final with an audacious try 12 minutes from time.
There were tumultuous scenes in the packed stadium as the Hurricanes, a team which often promised plenty but never delivered, became the fifth New Zealand side to be crowned Super champions.
“There’s been a lot of sorrow for this club and tonight we can finally say we’re champions for a Hurricanes team that’s been trying for a lot of years,” captain Dane Coles said.
“This goes out to all the Hurricanes players who have played for the jersey. We finally did it.”
Lions skipper Warren Whiteley accepted the Hurricanes deserved to win, but said his side only back in the competition three years since being dumped, would continue their meteoric rise next year.
“We feel the best is yet to come. This is only the start for us. We’ll have the same squad next year and we’ll learn from this,” Whiteley said.
The atrocious conditions dictated the outcome would rest on which of rival fly-halves Barrett and Elton Jantjies could best direct play.
It was a kicking duel Barrett won as he kept returning the Hurricanes to point-scoring positions despite the Lions dominating territory.
Cory Jane also scored for the Hurricanes with Barrett adding two conversions and two penalties while the Lions points came from a sole Elton Jantjies penalty.
It has been a long road to the top for the Hurricanes who lost the 2006 and 2015 finals as well as being beaten five times in the semi-finals.
But 2016 was not going to elude them, particularly with their local knowledge of Wellington’s wintry conditions while the arduous travel from South Africa eventually told on the Lions as the game wore on.
When the Lions used their big men to ram a pathway forward in the first half they were stopped in their tracks time and again as Brad Shields and Victor Vito, in his 100th game, led a bruising defence.
If the Lions went wide they were rattled by the Hurricanes line speed which directly led to the opening try.
Lionel Mapoe was forced to rush a clearing kick which went straight into the arms of Jane a few metres away and the former All Black wing had an easy run to the line.
The Hurricanes thought they had first points on the board six minutes into the game when Jane fielded a Barrett cross kick and crossed the line wide out only to be brought back for an earlier knock on.
But Jane was not to be denied the second time and with Barrett and Jantjies exchanging penalties the Hurricanes led 10-3 at the turn.
The Lions believed they had a try scoring chance late in the first half when they turned down a close-range penalty in favour of a scrum only to be pushed off the ball by a ‘Canes pack that was otherwise beaten in every other scrum.
A further Barrett penalty early in the second half extended the lead to 13-3 and as the Lions desperately tried to close the gap Barrett settled the outcome 12 minutes from the end.
The Lions won a defensive lineout only to fumble the ball which allowed the ever-alert Barrett to race through to score under their noses.
Victor Vito believes the script has been written for his Wellington Hurricanes to become the fifth new Super Rugby champions in six years when they battle the Golden Lions in Saturday’s final.
The odds favour the All Black flanker’s side winning the southern Hemisphere championship in what will be his 100th and final game for the Hurricanes.
They finished top of the regular season giving them home advantage, while the Lions have to make the energy-sapping journey from South Africa to New Zealand.
There is also the added emotion of the popular Vito’s milestone match to bring down the curtain on his career with the Hurricanes before linking up with French club La Rochelle.
“It certainly seems like the script’s been written a little bit,” Vito said. “A hundred games is pretty massive for me personally, but for me I’m just more excited about the fact that once again we are giving ourselves a shot to win a title as a team.”
Although playing at home did not profit the Hurricanes when they lost last year’s final to the Otago Highlanders, they have the added advantage this year of the travel factor impacting on the Lions.
In 10 attempts, no South African team has flown to New Zealand for a play-off match and won.
The Lions situation boils down to coach Johann Ackermann’s decision to rest his top players for their final pool match against the Jaguares in Argentina and they paid the ultimate price by being comprehensively beaten.
Had they managed just one point out of that game they would be hosting the final on the high veldt in South Africa, instead of playing in what is forecast to be a chilly, wet Wellington evening.
“I’ll probably have to live with the team selection for Buenos Aires,” Ackermann said.
“Will we make the wrong decision sometimes? Yes. But we’ll always go down trying.”
“We were confident that we’d get back into Super Rugby,” he said.
“It’s that old saying, you only really start appreciating something when you’re not involved, and to be out of Super Rugby was a big wake up call for all of us.”
The Hurricanes are again likely to be without their captain Dane Coles who has been bracketed with Ricky Riccitelli.
“He will do everything he can to be fit for kick-off and if he doesn’t make it then we have every confidence Ricky and Leni (replacement Leni Apisa) will step up and do a good job if required,” coach Chris Boyd said in naming his side, which again has All Black Julian Savea on the bench.
Hurricanes assistant coach Jason Holland described the Lions as a “complete side” with an astute tactician in fly-half Elton Jantjies.
“They’re a pretty complete side and we’re going to have to match them physically and then be aware that they can play with a bit of width,” Holland said.
It is the third final to be contested by the Hurricanes and a maiden appearance for the Lions.
The winner will join the Highlanders, NSW Waratahs, Chiefs and Queensland Reds who have all won their maiden titles in the past five years with the Chiefs winning twice.
Comparing their vital statistics, the Lions’ impressive running game has them top of the try list with 81 this year to the Hurricanes’ 70, and they have scored a total of 535 points to the Hurricanes’ 458.
But the Hurricanes have a better defensive record, leaking 314 points to the Lions’ 349 and they go into the final having not had any tries scored against them in more than 230 minutes.
When the two sides met in Johannesburg earlier this year, the Hurricanes won 50-17.
The Wellington Hurricanes thrashed the Canterbury Crusaders 35-10 to go top of the Super Rugby ladder in Christchurch on Saturday.
The five-tries-to-one victory left the Hurricanes with an anxious wait until the end of the Waikato Chiefs and Otago Highlanders match later on Saturday, to determine their play-off fate.
In the high-stakes encounter, with extreme risk-taking in search of reward, the Hurricanes turned a perceived midfield weakness into a strength with Jason Woodward and Willis Halaholo scoring two of their of five tries.
Replacement flanker Callum Gibbins then put them into bonus point territory with ten minutes remaining.
But while the victory elevated the Hurricanes to the top, they could still be overtaken by the Chiefs and Highlanders, as well as South Africa’s Golden Lions, who still have to play the Jaguares.
The top four New Zealand teams went into the final round with a chance to head the conference and secure the one guaranteed home quarter-final spot, while they other three are destined to travel overseas.
Before the match, both sides were forced into late replacements.
The Crusaders lost Sam Whitelock and Andy Ellis during the warm-up, while the Hurricanes had to rush Woodward onto the field at outside centre.
He replaced Ngani Laumape who was already an injury replacement for Matt Proctor.
It was Woodward who scored the opening try, running off a Beauden Barrett pass to finish off a sustained attack on the Crusaders line.
A Richie Mo’unga penalty eventually put the home side on the board and he also converted a Ryan Crotty try for the Crusaders to lead 10-7.
But on the stroke of half-time, scrum-half TJ Perenara charged down a clearing kick by his opposite Mitchell Drummond to regain the lead for the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes held a slender 14-10 at half-time and Halaholo, who has struggled for game time, proved the game-breaker 15 minutes into the second half.
In a rare opportunity as a starting player to replace the injured Vince Aso, Halaholo bumped off an ineffectual tackle attempt by Crotty to score under the posts.
Barrett landed the conversion to give the Hurricanes a 10-point buffer and they followed with tries to Gibbins.
That gave them the bonus-point three-try advantage before Barrett put the icing on the cake with a try at the end.
Waikato Chiefs’ captain Sam Cane admitted his side were “a bit lucky” after a 28-27 victory over the Wellington Hurricanes exposed cracks in their grip on the Super Rugby competition.
The Chiefs benefited from a questionable try in a wafer-thin victory that showed the Hurricanes are also likely to be serious contenders at the business end of the season.
The Western Stormers and the Golden Lions also remain threats as the regular season passed the halfway stage, as do the ACT Brumbies and Canterbury Crusaders who clash later on Sunday in Canberra.
At the bottom of the table, it was a historic weekend for Japan’s Sunwolves who posted their first win at the expense of the Jaguares from Argentina in the battle of the competition newcomers.
The Chiefs triumphed after a dubious try to register their seventh win in eight games while the Hurricanes dominated much of the game only to let themselves down with handling lapses and wayward goal kicking.
“We were a bit lucky,” Cane conceded. “We didn’t play very well. The Hurricanes were probably the better team.”
The Hurricanes had an edge in the forwards and fly-half Beauden Barrett frequently exposed defensive lapses.
He set up the Canes’ first try for Cory Jane, scored himself, landed a pressure drop goal and made a break in the last play of the game that should have produced a winning try.
But on the downside he missed two penalties and two conversions, while his pass to an unmarked Jason Woodward at the end of the game was dropped.
They also received the benefit of the doubt when their first try was awarded to Seta Tamanivalu although replays seemed inconclusive as to whether the ball was legally grounded.
In Cape Town, veteran Schalk Burger and debutant Brandon Thomson featured in the Stormers 40-22 win over the Queensland Reds to stay top of the Africa 1 conference.
Burger came off the bench to provide telling leadership after the Australians threatened an upset by taking a five-point lead with 28 minutes remaining.
Thomson, a 21-year-old who started the season as the fourth-choice Stormers fly-half, also came on in the second half and calmly kicked three penalties and a conversion.
The Lions, the Africa 2 conference leaders, used a 10-minute numerical advantage to score three tries en route to a 45-10 bonus-point triumph over Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
They were up 14-5 when Kings flanker Thembelani Bholi was sin-binned and the score had ballooned to 33-5 by the time he returned.
The Coastal Sharks snapped a three-match losing streak with a 15-14 win over defending champions the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin.
Gary April booted five penalties to score all the points for the Sharks who were tryless despite the Highlanders playing most of the game with 14 men after centre Jason Emery was red-carded for a dangerous tackle on Willie le Roux.
In Tokyo, the Sunwolves rebounded from last week’s 92-17 hiding by the Central Cheetahs to stun the Jaguares 36-28.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, were beaten 36-14 by the Melbourne Rebels who scored 26 unanswered points in the second half.
The NSW Waratahs ran in six tries to one to beat the Western Force 49-13.
The Wellington Hurricanes blew their best chance of winning a maiden Super Rugby title on Saturday and the concern of their long-suffering fans is what happens next year when conditions might not be so favourable.
It looked like the perfect storm had been brewing for the Hurricanes finally to be crowned southern hemisphere provincial champions ahead of the final against the Otago Highlanders.
Chris Boyd’s side had an exceptionally well worked out plan that played to their strengths out wide and was supported by a mobile, ball-playing and aggressive pack.
The players executed the tactics almost to perfection, thrilling their fans with 14 wins in their 16 regular season games.
The team were also riding the emotion from the untimely death of former flanker Jerry Collins and aware that six players, three of them club stalwarts, were leaving after the final.
They could not have picked a worse time to produce their most error-strewn game of the season.
Spurred by a strong defence, an astute tactical game based on kicking for territory and slowing down the quick ball the Hurricanes thrive on, the Highlanders stunned the favourites to claim their first title.
“I’m gutted for management, the players, the club because we deserve better than this,” captain Conrad Smith said.
“We made it harder on ourselves. It wasn’t their defence, it was usually our own doing.
“It was the spilt ball because we didn’t look after it and that cost us more than anything. We still created plenty of opportunities.”
Creating more of those opportunities will be at the forefront of many fans minds next year with stalwarts like Smith and his centre partner Ma’a Nonu leaving for contracts in France.
The midfield depth will be sorely tested with Ray Lee-Lo also departing, while workaholic lock Jeremy Thrush is heading to England.
Smith, Nonu and Thrush have all played more than 100 games for the team.
That kind of experience and commitment to the yellow and black jersey will be hard for Boyd to replace.
While the Hurricanes are losing that experience, they have locked in several of their young players.
Dane Coles, James Broadhurst, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett have all had their best seasons in Super Rugby.
They will only get better with exposure to the All Blacks environment, with loose forwards Savea and Shields likely to join the others and take the step up to the test squad in the near future.
Utility back Nehe Milner Skudder also had a breakout year and was named in the extended All Blacks squad, while Otere Black and Callum Gibbins made successful transitions from the wider training group.
Those younger members could also take heart from some parting public words from Smith after 12 seasons and 126 games for the Hurricanes.
“I always try and keep a bit of perspective on things and I’ll be telling the guys to lift their heads because there is a lot to be proud of,” Smith added.
“It’s a game of footy, we lost, that’s all there is.”
The Highlanders band of rejects cemented their fairytale season with the Super 15 crown when they outplayed the more illustrious Wellington Hurricanes 21-14 in a frenetic final on Saturday.
The historic first title for the Highlanders was only the fifth time in the 20-year history of Super rugby that the home team has been beaten in the final of the southern hemisphere club competition.
The composite team from the south, with co-captain Ben Smith the only member born in the Highlanders catchment area, ventured north to the Hurricanes Westpac Stadium and scored two tries to one.
But while the Highlanders, with few known names, had been largely written off at the start of the season, scrum-half Aaron Smith said they always had faith in themselves.
“No one believed in us and I said to the boys ‘earn the right to be called champions’ and we did it,” Smith said.
“We’re just down south being humble and doing our thing. We’ve done it. We’ve proved everyone wrong.”
The Hurricanes, pacesetters throughout the year, fell at the final hurdle, despite having a very vocal home crowd support, and captain Conrad Smith said they had no excuses.
“We met a Highlanders side that played out of their skin. I take my hat off to them, they deserve to be victorious,” he said.
From the opening three minutes of helter-skelter rugby, which ended with a penalty to Lima Sopoaga to open the scoring for the Highlanders, to a final drop goal by Marty Banks, the game was played at a relentless pace.
It was also packed with emotion, with neither side having previously won the championship.
The Hurricanes were also bidding farewell to a band of senior players including All Blacks Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Ben Franks and Jeremy Thrush.
They played with the initials JC stitched on their jerseys in memory of former teammate Jerry Collins who was recently killed in a car accident in France.
Fielding 10 players with Test experience, the Hurricanes dominated territory and possession only to be outplayed by a Highlanders unit, with only three experienced All Blacks, who belied their reputation as a team of unwanted nobodies.
Sopoaga moved to the Highlanders from Wellington to escape the shadow of Beauden Barrett, and Banks, who sealed the outcome at the end when the ‘Canes had closed to within four points, is another Hurricanes reject.
Elliot Dixon, who scored a crucial try on half-time to put the Highlanders ahead 13-5, joined the franchise from Canterbury where the Crusaders were stacked with All Blacks loose forwards.
Dixon again featured after the resumption of play when he drew two defenders to put Waisake Naholo over. Naholo, the top try scorer in the competition this year, signed up for the Hurricanes after being rejected by the Auckland Blues.
Aaron Smith, who engineered the victory with his astute direction of play, is another Highlander who has moved south from Hurricanes territory.
Ma’a Nonu scored the Hurricanes sole try in the 35th minute but after that they were never to breach the Highlanders defence again, with Barrett providing the rest of their points from three penalties.
Wellington Hurricanes loose forward Ardie Savea has been ruled out of the Super Rugby final against the Otago Highlanders after failing to recover from knee injury and been replaced by Callum Gibbins.
The openside flanker sustained the injury last week in the 29-9 semi-final victory over the ACT Brumbies.
Savea had been bracketed with Gibbins by coachChris Boyd and given until the last possible minute to prove his fitness before the final later on Saturday.
Lock Mark Abbott, who had been bracketed with Gibbins in the replacements, will remain on the bench with the loose forward moving into the starting side.
The Wellington Hurricanes-Otago Highlanders Super 15 final on Saturday “is going to be brutal” and could damage New Zealand’s World Cup strength, according to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
But he admits he wouldn’t have it any other way with southern hemisphere club rugbysupremacy at stake.
The Hurricanes, with 12 current All Blacks in their squad, compared to five with the Highlanders, have been installed as favourites by the pragmatists for the sold-out game in Wellington.
Rugby romantics, however, are backing the Highlanders who field a band of rugbynobodies with a never-say-die attitude.
In what will be an emotional encounter — neither side has previously won the title — several senior players, including Hurricanes figureheads Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, will be playing their last Super Rugby match.
“It’s going to be a real brutal game,” said Hansen, whose finals’ experience as assistant coach of the champion Canterbury Crusaders in 2000 fuels his trepidation about the risk of injury to key All Blacks ahead of the World Cup beginning in September.
“Whilst I’m excited about it being two New Zealand teams, there is a little bit of holding your breath because you don’t want any of those young men to get injured — or anyone for that matter — but not the 17 because they are earmarked to come in and play some of these Test matches that we’ve got to play before we go to the World Cup.
“But watching the two teams play, it’s going to be brutal.
“There’s no way you can expect anyone to hold back. You can’t. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for both teams. The emotion of it will play a big part.”
The last two teams standing were the best-performing attacking sides in the regular season with the Hurricanes heading the try-scoring list with 62, one more than the Highlanders.
The Highlanders have since conceded only three tries as they outsmarted Waikato Chiefs and NSW Waratahs in the playoffs.
Defence coach Scott McLeod said they had a “big day” on Tuesday working on a strategy to counter the Hurricanes.
“They’ve got threats across the park. You give them too much space and they will make the most of that with their running, offloading and continuity play. So we need to be able to shut that all down,” said McLeod.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are sweating on the fitness of Ardie Savea, a central figure in their attacking drive, who is suffering from a leg injury and has been bracketed with Callum Gibbins for the seven jersey.
The winner will be the eighth franchise to wear the Super Rugby crown in the 20-year history of the tournament and the fourth from New Zealand following the Canterbury Crusaders (seven championships), the Auckland Blues (three) and Waikato Chiefs (two).
Three Australian sides have claimed the title — the ACT Brumbies (two), the NSW Waratahs (one) and Queensland Reds (one). The Northern Bulls (three) are the only winners from South Africa.
The Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders have become the ugly duckling stories of New Zealand rugby after defying their critics to reach the Super 15 final.
The only New Zealand sides never to have won the Super crown started this season as two of the most unfancied outfits.
But they emerged from the regular season as the top two performers and then comprehensively downed the ACT Brumbies and NSW Waratahs in the Super semi-finals on Saturday.
The Hurricanes and Highlanders both specialised in positive, attacking rugby with impressive averages of nearly four tries and 30 points per game.
The pace-setting Hurricanes, whose only previous final appearance was a loss to the Canterbury Crusaders in 2006, won the right to host the final when they beat the two-times champion Brumbies 29-9 in Wellington.
In Sydney, the Highlanders crushed the Wallaby-laden Waratahs 35-17 to book a final berth for the first time since their lone 1999 appearance when they were also beaten by the Crusaders.
The Hurricanes-Highlanders showdown ensures the southern hemisphere championship will have a first-time titleholder, and for the fifth time in the 20-year history of the tournament it will be an all-New Zealand affair.
It was far from faultless rugby by the Hurricanes but with a backline including All Blacks Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea and rising new star Nehe Milner-Skudder, coach Chris Boyd said it was worth taking risks.
“If you play a high risk and reward game you’ve got to expect you will make mistakes,” he said, promising the same approach in the final.
“I don’t suspect we’ll change anything actually. We are just happy that we can go to the last dance and we do it in our own hall.”
The only issues facing the Hurricanes are the fitness of bruising flanker Ardie Savea, who was forced from the field with a knee injury after 50 minutes and ongoing hamstring problems which limited Milner-Skudder to the first half.
Fly-half Beauden Barrett gave up the kicking duties in the second half because of hip pain which he said had hampered him for years.
Fuelled by the emotion of losing former teammate Jerry Collins in a car accident three weeks ago, and with the packed stadium chanting “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry”, the Hurricanes had control of the Brumbies after five minutes.
They scored four tries, two in each half while restricting the Brumbies to a trio of penalties.
For Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph, the post-match debrief after the Waratahs clash had the familiarity of a well-worn record. How could a team with three All Blacks romp home against the defending champions who fielded 13 interntionals?
“You can’t say the same story every week,” he said.
“It still surprises me. In many ways it seems that we’ve fooled the rugby community, they still don’t quite believe in us, what else can these guys do?”
One of Highlanders’ biggest assets has been fitness, making them one of the best finishing sides in the competition.
When they trailed the Waratahs 17-15 after 50 minutes, they stepped up several gears to score 20 unanswered points.
Their cause was helped by a contentious penalty try when Jacques Potgieter was given a yellow card for a swinging arm tackle on Patrick Osborne near the Waratahs try-line.
But by that stage the game had already become one-way traffic and the Waratahs never looked like catching up