The Highlanders were crowned champions of Super Rugby 2015, as they put the Hurricanes to the sword in an epic all-New Zealand final on Saturday. Super Rugby confirmed the 21-14 victory for the visitors via Twitter:
In huge occasions like Saturday’s final, the opening exchanges can go one of two ways: either the players come out a little tentative and nervy or they go all out.
Super Rugby 2015 final was undoubtedly the latter.
There were some massive hits in the first few minutes, with Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa at the heart of the action.
It wasn’t long before the first points were chalked up on the scoreboard, as Lima Sopoaga converted a tricky-looking penalty with ease to put his side into a 0-3 lead.
First blood didn’t mean a drop in intensity, though, as both sides went at it with both barrels.
The Hurricanes piled on plenty of pressure, but strong defensive work by Jamie Joseph’s men kept them at bay. That’s how it was for both sides, too, as they went all out for the try line—as Oval Digest reflected:
It wasn’t until the 27-minute mark that further damage was done to the scoreboard, with Sopoaga once again converting a penalty to make it 0-6.
That scoreline didn’t exactly tell the tale of the first half, though, as the Hurricanes were enjoying the best of the action deep into the Highlanders half.
They were trying their hardest to get back in the game but over-eagerness saw them give away a few penalties and lose their chances to dot down.
However, just before the half-time interval, the Hurricanes’ pressure finally told.
Powerhouse Ma’a Nonu forced his way over to make it 5-6, leaving onlooker Dave Arthur amazed at the Kiwi’s brute strength:
So, it looked like game on heading into the break, but Elliot Dixon had other ideas.
Great work from Aaron Smith released the incredible Dixon, who took three Hurricanes players over the line with him yet still managed to get the ball down.
Sapoaga converted once again to make it 5-13 at half time.
Looking back over the first 40 minutes, it could well have been 13-5 to the Hurricanes rather than the Highlanders, but such is rugby that taking chances is imperative.
Chris Boyd’s men were in no mood to stand around licking their wounds as the second half got underway, though, as they piled on the pressure and got back into the match at 8-13 thanks to Beauden Barrett’s penalty.
However, they were caught cold when prolific try-scorer Waisake Naholo was on the end of a flowing counter to make it 8-18, as EatSleepRugby’s video shows:
Another Barrett kick made it 11-18, before the 'Canes spurned their biggest chance of the final.
Julian Savea was the extra man in a superb move by the hosts, but he completely (and uncharacteristically) fluffed his lines—per EatSleepRugby:
That seemed to take the wind out of the Hurricanes’ sails a touch, but when Barrett kicked a penalty to make it 14-18 on 67 minutes, it was game on once again.
The Highlanders were now sweating.
There was only so much defending they could do—they absolutely had to get forward and put some pressure on the Canes’ back line.
They did exactly that, though, and were it not for a monumental Savea tackle, Marty Banks would have been in to dot down.
The Highlanders’ frustration was short-lived, however, as Banks struck a drop goal to make it 14-21 with just three minutes remaining.
That’s how it stayed until the final whistle, as the Highlanders wrote their name into the history books with their first-ever Super Rugby triumph.
The team’s official Twitter feed reflected on just how big an accomplishment the victory was:
Defensively, the champions were quite simply flawless. Withstanding everything that the Hurricanes can throw at a team is no mean feat, but they did it brilliantly.
Dixon, who was awarded the man of the match gong, scored his try at a vital time, as it looked for all the world as if the 'Canes were going to head in at half-time just a point adrift.
The No. 8 was unheralded at the start of the year, and his rise to prominence couldn’t have been better suited for this historic victory.
Reaction to follow