Highlanders superb in Super Rugby title win
Highlanders heaven took over Wellington's Westpac Stadium as the southern men secured the Investec Super Rugby title with a 21-14 win over the Hurricanes to complete a fairy tale season with their first championship title.
Coming home in the competition with a stunning series of wins that belied their under-rated, but not over-whelmed, reputations, the Highlanders maintained the impetus that had seen them beat the Chiefs, Waratahs and Hurricanes on successive weekends.
Their heroes were many: man of the match Elliot Dixon who scored a stunning try to cap a superb season, Aaron Smith who kept the ball in front of his pack, and what a pack they were, No.8 Nasi Manu, injured eye closing again at first contact, and prop Josh Hohneck were outstanding in the contact plays, wings Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne looked for work all night.
The Highlanders had to replace their ace points scorer and first five-eighths Lima Sopoaga after he succumbed to cramp. But his replacement Marty Banks demonstrated his mercurial qualities to seal the final.
Initially Banks was setting up for a 75th minute dropped goal attempt, received the ball and propped to kick, only to decide to run and it took a desperate cover tackle by Julian Savea to deny replacement prop Ross Geldenhuys a try, by millimetres.
But two minutes from time, after another run from a set-up attempt, he finally nailed the dropped goal to put the issue beyond the home side.
No.8 Victor Vito had a massive game for the Hurricanes while flanker Brad Shields helped fill the gap left in Ardie Savea's absence. Ma'a Nonu was a menace throughout with a strong last game for the side. There were glimpses from centre Conrad Smith but wing Nehe Milner-Skudder's dancing was well contained in a stirring contest with the contender for his position Malakai Fekitoa.
New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey said: "Congratulations Highlanders. Well done on a hard fought victory. Hard luck Hurricanes, thanks for making tonight such an exciting contest. And thanks to all the fans who filled Westpac Stadium and watched from afar. It was a great spectacle of Investec Super Rugby at its best and a fitting climax to another great season."
It was the game that rugby fans expected, full of thrust and counter-thrust, mistakes under pressure and a resurgent Hurricanes team charging into the final quarter when down 11-18.
Tired bodies on both sides needed to lift themselves to see out a game played at unrelenting pace with a huge prize adding to stress levels.
Having seen Sopoaga land penalty goals in the fourth and 27th minutes, the second of which made him the top scorer in the competition in 2015, the Hurricanes struggled to get points on the board.
They had not been without opportunities, but lacked the finishing touches that could have been better represented on the scoreboard. It didn't help that Barrett missed two penalty goal chances in the first half as well.
Finally, a spark from halfback TJ Perenara down the sideline as he ran into space after fielding a Highlanders clearing kick provided a chance that the Hurricanes finally took in the 35th minute. After driving play at the line, space appeared on the left where second five-eighths Ma'a Nonu was perfectly placed and he scored in the corner.
With five minutes remaining until half-time, the Hurricanes were only one point behind. However, they didn't count on the willingness of the visitors to continue to move the ball. It was Aaron Smith who ran to the blindside, tied up the opposition defence and then slipped the ball to Dixon lurking on the left flank.
Dixon cut back infield and then ploughed through intense home defence to ground the ball over the line, although the TMO had to decide whether Nehe Milner-Skudder's foot prevented the grounding of the ball. He decided there was enough grass in the touchdown and with Sopoaga's conversion the Highlanders went to the break up 13-5.
Barrett landed a penalty goal two minutes into the half but the Highlanders surged back on attack after Naholo won a turnover. Again the ball moved through willing Highlanders hands on left and right, before Dixon fed Naholo on the left flank for his 13th try of the season.
The pressure mounted on the Hurricanes and there was more of an air of desperation when Savea was unable to hold a poor pass and dropped the ball with the corner beckoning. The gap closed when Barrett landed his third penalty goal in the 65th minute.
The Hurricanes made a late surge, but they couldn't break the determination of the Highlanders whose defensive strength had been the cornerstone of their season and it was fitting that capped their ultimate success.
Scorers: Hurricanes 14 (Ma'a Nonu tries; Beauden Barrett 3 pen) Highlanders 21 (Elliott Dixon, Waisake Naholo tries; Lima Sopoaga con, 2 pen; Marty Banks dropped goal). HT: 5-13