Super Rugby Final
Highlanders win a game played in heaven
Andy Withers
July 4, 2015
Date/Time: Jul 4, 2015, 19:35 local, 07:35 GMT
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Hurricanes 14 - 21 Highlanders
Attendance: 0  Half-time: 5 - 13
Tries: Nonu
Pens: Barrett 3
Tries: EC Dixon, Naholo
Cons: Sopoaga
Pens: Sopoaga 2
Drops: Banks
The Highlanders' Waisake Naholo beats the tackles of Dane Coles and Julian Savea to score, Hurricanes v Highlanders, Super Rugby, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, July 4, 2015
The Highlanders' Waisake Naholo beats the tackles of Dane Coles and Julian Savea to score
© Getty Images

The Highlanders have won their first Super Rugby title, becoming the fourth champions from New Zealand after winning a classic and breathless end-to-end decider in which both finalists dedicated themselves to playing an attacking brand of rugby. And in defeating the Hurricanes, the Highlanders became just the fifth away final winners in the 20-year history of Super Rugby and only the second champions to succeed from outside the top two.

But the underdogs' co-captains Ben Smith and Nasi Manu lifted the trophy only after replacement fly-half Marty Banks, on for Lima Sopoaga, who limped off with 10 minutes to play, had dropped a goal three minutes from time to ensure the decisive seven-point margin after the Hurricanes had swung momentum towards the hosts.

Waisake Naholo rides Julian Savea to the ground, Hurricanes v Highlanders, Super Rugby, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, July 4, 2015
Waisake Naholowas solid in defence against Julian Savea before he beat The Bus to score the decisive try © Getty Images

The Hurricanes will lament a string of mistakes, including three missed kicks from Beauden Barrett in the first half, who was particularly indecisive in the first stanza, and the moment when Julian Savea dropped a pass with the line wide open 20 minutes from time. The Hurricanes can also feel aggrieved with the decision of TMO Ben Skeen who awarded the Highlanders a try through Elliot Dixon on the stroke of half-time even though the barnstorming back-rower seemed to have lost control of the ball having placed it on the boot of Nehe Milner-Skudder.

Few can argue, however, that the Highlanders, who finished the regular season fourth on the ladder behind the Hurricanes, were the better team on the night. The Hurricanes beat them twice in the regular season, including by 36 points in Napier, when Jamie Joseph elected to rest All Blacks Ben Smith, Malakia Fekitoa and Aaron Smith, but the Highlanders produced a combination of desperate defence and rapier attacking thrusts to secure the title. Much as the Hurricanes can question the validity of man-of-the-match Dixon's try shortly before half-time, after Ma'a Nonu had claimed the opening five-pointer just through minutes earlier, the back-rower had also beaten the tackles of five defenders in his 20-metre charge to the line while Waisake Naholo, six-minutes after the break, crashed through disappointing attempted tackles by Beauden Barrett and Savea to score his 13th try of a breakout season that has already seen him called up to the All Blacks squad.

"It was a game of moments, and we won them tonight," Aaron Smith said.

"We had to earn the right to be called champions."

Smith said the Highlanders "ran probably more than we planned".

"We knew if we tried to do that they'd run us off our feet. We just had to keep turning them round. Play like we're going to attack and then kick in behind. We knew they'd always back themselves to run it out and we just had to back our D to do the job."

The Highlanders have taken out the Super Rugby final in stunning fashion

Ma'a Nonu bagged the opening try of the evening © Getty Images

Elliot Dixon dived over to score a controversial try on the stroke of half-time © Getty Images

Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith was an obviously bitterly disappointed man after losing the biggest game of his 12-year career with the Canes, saying "I don't know what to say". He is just one of six players set to depart the franchise, alongside Ma'a Nonu, the iconic midfield partners leaving to play in France next year.

"We met a Highlanders side that played out of their skin," Smith said. "I take my hat off to them. They deserve to be victorious."

The Highlanders, as they did in last week's semi-final upset of the Waratahs, kicked cleverly, defended robustly and counter-attacked with intent. Their no-name forward pack also again out-pointed higher-rated opposites, while Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga completed superb seasons with controlling performances. Sopoaga, the competition-leading points-scorer eclipsed Barrett in general play and goalkicking, landing three from three as the Highlanders took a 13-5 lead into half-time while the Canes' kicker missed his first three attempts. Sopoaga landed penalties in the fifth and 29th minutes and Barrett was astray with his first two attempts. Barrett also missed the conversion of Nonu's try after the second five-eighth had crossed in the left corner from a blindside play.

The Highlanders led 6-5 after Barrett's missed conversion before the most contentious moment of the game a minute before half-time. Dixon charged 20 metres and grounded the ball on the foot of Milner-Skudder when he reached out to score. The back-rower appeared to lose the ball forward and reacted in disappointed fashion, but Skeen ruled the ball had also found grass.

The controversy was perhaps exacerbated because Dixon seemed anything but confident that he had touched down, the back-rower not celebrating at all. But he had a reason for a lack of confidence, saying "I thought I got the boot and the ground at the same time but a couple this year haven't gone my way".

Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd disagreed with Skeen's decision. "I actually thought he'd lost the ball but we tend to look at these things out of our own eyes," he said. "At the end of the day, it was pretty critical." Boyd didn't want to make excuses, however, instead blaming his team's uncharacteristic mistakes and the Highlanders' all-purpose methods for a gutting loss.

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph also believed that Dixon's try was critical, saying "we were able to go into the tunnel with a lot of confidence because we were off our feet two or three minutes prior to that." But he said simply in reasoning the result that his team "took the chances when we had them".

"I'm really happy for the team," Joseph said. "It's been a dream season for us. We put some pressure on the opposition and we took our chances. We went to pieces a little bit in the middle of the second half - guys started getting tired, and cramp - but we managed to find enough ticker to get through."

Barrett was finally on target with a penalty soon after the break but the visitors pulled clear 18-8 when Naholo claimed his first try against the Hurricanes, the winger powering through Savea and Barrett after Dixon had straightened a multi-phase attack that had already gone through two penalty advantages.

Two Barrett penalties reduced the margin to four points before the unmarked Savea spilled a pass he should have held five metres from from the line, and Banks secured the victory with his late drop goal after faking two attempts previously.

"The 'Slippery Eel's just slippery," Aaron Smith said of Banks, "and he slotted the one that mattered."

Fans were engaged by an end-to-end classic © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd with AAP

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