Jul 4 • General News, Super Rugby • 2746 Views • Comments Off on HIGHLANDERS STUN THE ‘CANES TO CLAIM TITLE

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Waisake Naholo’s second-half try helped the Highlanders claim their maiden Super Rugby title with a 21-14 win over the Hurricanes.

The teams stayed true to their philosophy in a thrilling encounter, with both sides constantly looking to keep ball in hand, but in the end it was the Highlanders who were the more clinical.

Two years after finishing 13th, the Highlanders became only the third team to win a Super Rugby Final on the road, while the ‘Canes missed out once more, having previously lost to the Crusaders in the final in 2006, and are now the only New Zealand team not to have won the competition.

In the first all-Kiwi final since 2006, the Highlanders had the better of the first half, with Lima Sopoaga kicking them into an early 6-0 lead, while Elliot Dixon’s try on the stroke of half-time gave them a 13-5 advantage at the break.

Ma’a Nonu, in his final game of Super Rugby like centre partner Conrad Smith, had earlier crossed from close range for the Hurricanes, who were missing the breakdown presence of the injured Ardie Savea.

The Hurricanes had their chances in the second half, and Beauden Barrett’s improved goal-kicking (after a poor start) brought them back in touch, but in the end Naholo’s try and Marty Banks’ late drop goal proved decisive, with Julian Savea dropping the ball over the line when he had the chance to level the scores just after the hour mark.

The Hurricanes had dominated the regular season, winning a record-equalling 14 games from 16 to finish top of the table before cruising past the Brumbies in the semi-final.

It had been a little trickier for the Highlanders, who finished with the second best record, but seeded fourth due to the conference system. Despite their unheralded and uncapped pack, they were able to see off the star-studded Chiefs in the qualifier, before hammering the defending champion Waratahs in Sydney to reach a first final since 1999.

The game began at a frenetic pace and it was the Highlanders who dominated the early territorial battle, with Ben Franks penalised for holding on and allowing Sopoaga to open the scoring with a fourth-minute penalty.

The Hurricanes could have responded immediately when the Highlanders jumped offside at a lineout but Barrett, kicking despite being hampered with a knee injury in training this week, was off-target from distance.

Still, the home side were starting to come back into it, and when Aaron Smith was put under pressure in his own 22, Sopoaga ended up having to touch down in-goal, conceding a five-metre scrum. The ‘Canes used that to set up a series of charges from close range, but Reggie Goodes was held up and from the resulting scrum the Highlanders won a penalty to relieve the danger.

Both teams, as they have all season, were determined to play quickly, with an interminable passage midway through the half almost ending with a Richard Buckman interception try after a succession of linebreaks and try-scoring chances had gone begging.

Barrett missed a second chance to draw the sides level, and when he was then caught holding on, Sopoaga made him pay from halfway to make it 6-0 after 28 minutes.

The Hurricanes had the better of both the territory and possession in the first half-hour but were struggling to turn that into points, although one delightful break and blind pass from Nehe Milner-Skudder to Nonu deserved better than an eventual knock-on five metres out.

Another chance then went begging after a quick lineout saw TJ Perenara streak down the left touchline, with Ben Smith able to force him into touch and avert the danger.

Finally the ‘Canes pressure told however, with Perenara’s wide pass putting Nonu into space and the centre was not going to be stopped from five metres out, crashing past Josh Hohneck. Barrett missed his third kick of the game from the touchline, but the Hurricanes were back to within a point.

However the Highlanders hit straight back. It was all about the power of Dixon, who brushed off three tackles and powered over before reaching and dotting down, getting the benefit of the doubt from the TMO after dotting down on Milner-Skudder’s foot before touching the ground. Sopoaga converted to make it 13-5 to the visitors at the break.

The Hurricanes started the second half the quicker, earning a penalty at a maul, and Barrett finally found the target to cut the deficit to five.

That wasn’t enough to scare the Highlanders though, who kept playing their game and ran in a second try after a brilliant finish from Naholo. The competition’s top try-scorer was able to wriggle through Savea’s tackle to touch down on the line and push the lead out to ten points. Sopoaga’s conversion grazed the outside of the post.

Barrett seemed to have found his kicking boots and knocked over a second penalty from distance, before Sopoaga’s surprisingly pulled a shot at goal of his own from 45 metres out in front.

The Hurricanes should have made him pay after brilliantly working some space out wide, only for Savea to knock on with the line at his mercy. It was an incredible miss from the world’s best finisher but soon after Barrett added his third penalty following a chargedown on Sopoaga.

The momentum seemed to be with the home team, but while they have been so successful this season with their offloading games, on this occasion the final pass too often went astray, with another break from Blade Thomson ending with a pass to Ben Smith rather than a teammate.

And the Highlanders could have sealed the win when Ross Geldenhuys looked to be over following a gliding run from Banks, only for Savea to make up for his earlier miss with a stunning last-ditch tackle.

It didn’t matter though, with Banks popping up and knocking over his first drop goal of the season in the dying stages to seal the win and the title for Jamie Joseph’s side.

Courtesy of SANZAR

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