Super Rugby 2015: Storylines to Follow in Final
The Super Rugby final takes place in Wellington this weekend with an all-New Zealand affair between the Hurricanes and the Highlanders.
In a World Cup year, there are personal battles all over the field as the competition’s two best sides go head to head with many of their players vying for a place in Steve Hansen’s final 31-man squad bound for England.
But thoughts of that trip will be put aside in the Cake Tin as these two franchises battle it out for the title of champions.
The ‘Canes finished on top of the overall table and as winners of the New Zealand conference, while Jamie Joseph’s Highlanders registered the second-highest points total of the competition.
So we genuinely have this season’s two best sides dueling for the silverware.
Here are the storylines to follow.
1. A Tale of 2 No. 10s
Two No. 10s in the extended New Zealand squad come face to face on Saturday when the Hurricanes’ Beauden Barrett lines up against the Highlanders’ Lima Sopoaga.
In the semi–finals, the two were poles apart in terms of their performances, but both had up-and-down goal–kicking displays.
Barrett was wayward with the boot to the point that the kicking tee was taken away from him before half–time.
Sopoaga’s stats don’t make for comfortable reading, with two from five conversion attempts and one from three penalties successful, per ESPNscrum.co.uk.
He did swing a nice drop goal at the end in his defence. But the Highlanders man was also commanding with his kicking from hand, pinning the Waratahs back and creating a try with one lofted chip.
This is very much shop-window time for Sopoaga.
Barrett has been billed as the All Blacks' go–to man off the bench in recent seasons, and that role is up for grabs with the absence of Aaron Cruden as Dan Carter’s most experienced deputy.
If Sopoaga can put Barrett in the shade on Saturday, he may well be the man to rise from the pine for the Blacks this year, as Chris Rattue wrote in the New Zealand Herald: "On the All Blacks front, the selectors know what their super-sub Barrett is all about. But this is a huge game for Sopoaga in that regard."
2. Snapping Scrum Halves in the Spotlight
Without wishing for this to turn into a half-back love–in, the contest between the men supplying the two fly-halves cannot pass without a mention.
Aaron Smith is the form No. 9 on the planet, with a crisp service, sharp eye and blistering pace. Sam Bruce wrote on ESPNscrum.co.uk:
While the world's best flankers and fly-halves have closed the gap on Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, respectively, Smith is fast moving in the other direction. He is world's best No.9 by some margin; the chasing pack hasn't even entered the home straight.
He is up against his All Blacks understudy TJ Perenara, who Chris Rattue of the New Zealand Herald describes as “the king of getting little combinations going that create tries, with the half-back supporting on the inside.”
Rattue adds that the pair will “shove each other about at scrums, and this is a good chance for Perenara - who exudes a cocky demeanour - to show he can counter Smith's over-the-top enthusiasm and lip in a big game.”
A toe-to-toe scrap between scrum-halves is one of rugby’s best attributes, especially when it gets niggly. Remember Robert Jones and Nick Farr-Jones in the 1989 Lions series trading blows?
Should the shoving and pushing get too much for these two combustible characters on Saturday, we could see something similar erupt.
3. Swangsongs for 'Canes Stars
Three major players for the Hurricanes will be playing their last game for the black and yellow this weekend.
Ma’a Nonu is leaving for Toulon after the Rugby World Cup while his provincial and international midfield partner Conrad Smith is also heading to France to join Pau.
Lock Jeremy Thrush is another who brings down the curtain on his Super Rugby career before joining up with Gloucester.
The former under–19 World Player of the Year was paid this tribute by All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen in the New Zealand Herald:
'Steady Eddies either stay that way or they get comfortable in the environment they're in and actually become better players and I think that's what he's done. He's the complete team guy ... He's worked really, really hard on his game.'
So expect a few tears come the final whistle as these servants bid their farewells.
4. Scalpers Paradise?
Tickets for the final have been hard to come by this week, and fears that touts will cash in on the scarcity of seats have been circulating.
Fans have queued through the night to secure their tickets with Hurricanes players even turning up with pizza to keep them well-fed, per the New Zealand Herald.
The same paper has also reported tickets turning up online for as much as NZ$1500, and used its editorial to call for an expansion of a law in New Zealand covering international events that outlaws the selling-on of tickets for a profit.
The scalpers who swooped on some of the 30,000 tickets that the Super 15 promoter had, by necessity, to sell in a very short period, increased the chances of genuine fans having to pay more than the official value. They also inhibited the promoter's ability to sell the tickets to true fans at the price they wanted them to pay. Scalpers seize on occasions such as this when tickets are sold for much less than they might otherwise fetch. The promoters have little room to move. The most obvious step, that of lifting prices to reduce scalpers' ability to profit, means only that tickets become unaffordable to genuine fans.
With a capacity in the region of 36,000 at the Cake Tin on Saturday, it seems a reasonable bet that the touts will be out in force outside the stadium looking to cash in once again.
Your correspondent was at the same venue in 2005 for the second Test of that year’s Lions series, and witnessed first-hand the desperation of supporters looking for a once-in-a-lifetime ticket, and the preying nature of the touts who exploit them.
It seems like little has changed in the intervening 10 years.