Super Rugby Final
Highlanders' triumph built from the bottom up
Sam Bruce
July 4, 2015
Hurricanes 14-21 Highlanders (Australia only)

All hail the mighty Highlanders, the unheralded bunch of rugby players from the deepest south of New Zealand's South Island. And all hail their coach, Jamie Joseph. What he has achieved in Dunedin this season cannot be understated; he will one day be coaching the All Blacks.

Saturday's win over the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby final was their third successive victory in the play-offs - the first team to achieve that feat in the five years of the outgoing conference system - while they are just the fifth side to win a Super Rugby decider away from home.

But this was a journey that started at the end of 2013, when Joseph realised teams couldn't be bought; they had to be built. Just two years ago the Highlanders finished in 14th position. They'd recruited the likes of All Blacks Ma'a Nonu, Andrew Hore and Hosea Gear in the hope that an influx of Test stars would provide them with the talent they needed to challenge for the title; they were wrong.

The Highlanders co-captains celebrate their victory © Getty Images

Joseph and his staff subsequently brought in players low on reputation but high on work ethic; players who may not have had the brilliant individual skills to create headlines, but the desire and drive to be part of a winning culture in which shortcuts and egos were off limits.

ESPN spoke to a number of Highlanders throughout 2015, and each time the words "culture", "hard work" and "fun" were offered up in a generous supply. Fly-half Lima Sopoaga spoke of the inner sanctum known as The Brotherhood, and that drive to work for each other was clearly evident again on Saturday night. Post-game half-back Aaron Smith said he'd told his troops to earn the right to be champions, and they certainly had.

The visitors played with just 32% possession in the first half but still managed to go to the break 13-5 ahead. They were forced to defend numerous Hurricanes attacking raids, but they were selective in choosing the breakdowns to attack and eventually found a way to force a mistake or win a penalty.

They followed the lead of Man of the Match Elliot Dixon, who scored one try and set up another, and continually put their bodies on the line for the cause. They, too, had their attacking moments, with usual suspects Ben and Aaron Smith threatening both in close and out wide; but this, as has been the Highlanders' story all year, was a complete team performance.

Elliot Dixon's try had a fair degree of doubt about it © Getty Images

It's hard not to feel a little bit sad for the Hurricanes, who were quite clearly the best team all year having dropped just two games in the regular season. But those 14 wins count for little when it comes to the final; and when you don't take the opportunities that fall your way, there can be no-one to blame but yourselves - no matter what the Hurricanes might have thought of the TMO decision for Dixon's try.

No, this was a result the Highlanders well and truly deserved; best of all, it reinforced the message that game plans, tactics and training it takes to win titles can be put in place only once you get a team's culture right.

All hail the mighty Highlanders. They are your 2015 Super Rugby champions.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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