Highlanders cap off great Super Rugby comeback

Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith makes a break during his side’s Super Rugby triumph against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday night.

How perfect was Saturday night’s Super Rugby final in Wellington?

Good weather. A sell out crowd. A game worthy of the occasion.

No villains. Half the heroes so low key they’re called Smith.

The Highlanders are 2015 Super Rugby champions after beating the Hurricanes 21-14 in the capital.

If the Highlanders hadn’t won, another bunch of good guys in the form of the Hurricanes would have.

The season suggested the Canes would become first-time champions, but the Highlanders, on TAB odds on two-to-one to lose, showed just how much they deserve to be at the top table. They were outstanding.

At halfback and first-five Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga were dominant. By comparison, with TJ Perenara under pressure from a fierce Highlanders pack, Beauden Barrett was unusually hesitant.

Hurricanes prop Ben Franks charges forward during the Super Rugby final.

Aaron Smith, as he has been all season, was amazing, whether holding up Canes prop Reg Goodes on the line, making a 45-metre clearing kick, or throwing panic into the Canes’ defence, and so giving Elliot Dixon the metre’s start he needed to score the try of a lifetime just on halftime.

In the rugby equivalent of a Mexican standoff it became clear the Canes were more likely to blink than the southern men, never better expressed than when Julian Savea decked a 100 percent try-scoring chance at 60 minutes.

Bravo to everyone involved in the Highlanders, who as recently as 2013 were licking their wounds after a truly awful season that saw them finish second-to-last, just ahead of the abysmal Kings from Port Elizabeth.

Praise where it’s due for the greatest Super Rugby comeback this century.

Jamie Joseph and his old team-mate Tony Brown brilliantly managed two vital elements for success.

First, over the last couple of years, came some solid gold selections. Prime examples? Joseph had been an Aaron Smith fan from the time he plucked the kid out of Manawatu to play for the New Zealand Maori side. He started picking him ahead of Jimmy Cowan when the idea itself seemed fanciful. Nobody in Auckland saw the potential in Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo. Joseph and Brown did.

The second key was in finding guys on the way up, men who would relish every challenge they faced, for whom round robin games against household names in opposing sides had the rush of a test match.

Start in the front row with tighthead prop Josh Hohneck, a man who provides what amounts to a big steel girder running through the Highlanders’ pack. Or consider lock Alex Ainsley, at 33 playing as if it’s his 10th season at this level, not as it is, his first, through to Nasi Manu, a man who fits the description a cycling coach once gave the great Kiwi rider Bruce Biddle, “this great big chest, with a huge heart pumping away inside.”

The tweak is that this is not just a brave, but a smart side. Unafraid to sometimes try something usually alien to a New Zealand team, in this case a dropkick to seal the game, they’re always conscious of exactly where they are on the paddock, and where they want to be.

To beat the Canes took an outstanding effort.

Their talent this year is all over the field. Start in the front row with Dane Coles, whose explosive running gives them a point of attack so unexpected, it’s like discovering Jeremy Thrush can drop kick 50 metre goals.

Add in massive, tough, tight forwards, dynamic loose forwards, superb halves, and then a back three with remarkable skills presented with such confidence no opposing line is safe.

First up tackling against an outfit like the Canes is essential. The Highlanders made them, they moved a highly experienced side around the field, kept them off balance, and thoroughly deserved an historic victory.

The wonderful tweak for Highlander fans is that this win is not remotely a last gasp. There’s a lot more where Saturday night’s effort came from.

– Sunday Star Times

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