The Highlanders celebrate with the trophy after their Super Rugby final win.
PHIL WALTER/GETTY IMAGES
The Highlanders’ heroes have heaped heartbreak on the Hurricanes with a 21-14 Super Rugby final win in Wellington.
Sixteen years after losing the 1999 final, Jamie Joseph’s brave battlers pooped the party at Westpac Stadium in front of a capacity crowd of 36,558.
The Hurricanes drowned in a sea of high expectation, unable to play with the freedom and discipline that had marked their brilliant run to the final.
The Highlanders are 2015 Super Rugby champions after beating the Hurricanes 21-14 in the capital.
But the Highlanders didn’t blink, playing with unbridled instinctive freedom to become the first team to win the Super Rugby title from the quarterfinal stage.
They had knocked off the Chiefs in Dunedin, then bamboozled the Waratahs in Sydney, but few thought they could beat the regular season champion Hurricanes on their home patch.
A more deserved set of champions there has probably never been. Halfback Aaron Smith was brilliant, Waisake Naholo influential with a second half try, but it was the unheralded crew led by blindside Elliott Dixon and prop Brendon Edmonds who epitomised the southerners.
ROB JEFFERIES/GETTY IMAGES
Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders celebrates a try that helped his team to the Super Rugby title.
And it was Tasman replacement Marty Banks, the man dumped by the Hurricanes last season, who iced the win with a 78th minute drop goal.
It was a cruel finish for a Hurricanes side that was desperate to send off their senior players, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith included, with the title that’s eluded a generation.
It wasn’t to be and the ghosts of their 2006 finals loss in Christchurch now have unwelcome company. For Wellington fans the list of woe now stretches to seven lost provincial finals and two at Super Rugby level since 2000.
HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES
Hurricanes prop Ben Franks charges forward during the Super Rugby final.
The Hurricanes’ agony and that of first year coach Chris Boyd, ever the bridesmaid, was palpable on full time as yet another talented team fell short in Wellington. Even the crowd’s chants of “Jerry, Jerry” could not lift the Hurricanes over that final hurdle, but the late Jerry Collins would have loved every second of the final. The hits came thick and fast from the first minute to the last as the two sides battered each other into submission.
For the Highlanders there were heroes all over the park, from No 8 Nasi Manu, who soldiered through 50 minutes with one eye shut, to Dixon who played as though he had 360 degree vision. While the visitor’s off-loaded without fear and followed their instincts, the Hurricanes seemed uncertain how to approach the final, kicking for territory early, then being roped into a hectic game of quick taps and crazy counter attack.
The home team undoubtedly missed openside Ardie Savea, who had withdrawn with a knee injury before kick off, but these Highlanders probably would have beaten anyone.
Aaron Smith conducted a reckless pace as he has all season. It was unpredictable, scatter-gun, kick-chase rugby and nobody in the stadium had any idea where play would end up.
The Highlanders cleverly dropped their wings deep and Beauden Barrett was forced to run when his instinct were telling him to kick, putting his side under pressure in their own half. His opposite Lima Sopoaga was only too happy to bang over the penalties and a sideline conversion before halftime, while Barrett’s season long kicking woes continued with three costly first half misses.
The Hurricanes were having success getting around the corner from rucks with waves of runners eating up territory but, as they had during their semifinal against the Brumbies, they struggled to finish.
A string of breakout attacks came to nothing. Wing Nehe Milner-Skudder’s counter was spoiled by a Reggie Goodes knock on, halfback TJ Perenara’s quick lineout take was denied by a Ben Smith cover tackle, and an attacking scrum ended with a penalty.
Finally the Hurricanes found the line, Perenara firing a flat pass to Nonu, who dived past Josh Hohneck to make it 6-5.
But this was the Highlanders half and Dixon had the final say with a brilliant solo try on the stroke of halftime after a mix up between Perenara and Jeremy Thrush gifted them field position.
Dixon, unheralded at the start of the season, punctuated his rise to prominence when he beat no less than six Hurricanes on a 20 metre burst before plonking the ball half on the line, half on Milner-Skudder’s boot for a 13-5 lead.
The harder the Hurricanes tried, the more the match slipped away. Barrett found his kicking boots with three penalties, but it wasn’t enough and the Hurricanes long wait continues.