Three Points
Canes' efficiency v Highlanders' adaptability
Brett McKay
July 1, 2015

Super Rugby will have new first-time champions in 2015, after the two semi-finals saw the Hurricanes and Highlanders prevail. Both teams are in their second final, but no-one actually saw the 2006 decider that featured the Hurricanes because of the thick fog that descended over Christchurch on the night. The Highlanders were also beaten by the Crusaders - at Carisbrook, the original 'House of Pain', in 1999.

The Hurricanes' 29-9 win over the Brumbies, and the Highlanders' impressive 35-17 win over the Waratahs in Sydney has set up what should be cracking final - one I feared that at the start of the finals series that we couldn't see if the qualifying finals went according to seedings. Thankfully they didn't.

Here's Three Points from the semi-finals to inform our thoughts for the championship game.

Hurricanes 29-9 Brumbies (Australia only)

Hurricanes efficient with and without the pill

Canes coach Chris Boyd told me in Wellington on Friday morning that his side had been affected deeply by the tragic death of Jerry Collins and his partner, Alana Madill, and that the former Hurricanes and All Blacks back-rower's love of the rough stuff in defence would remain a driving force in his team's quest for their maiden title. And there can be no doubt the Hurricanes lifted in defence on Saturday night, when the Brumbies, try as they might, produced their only real period of sustained attacking in the 10 minutes before half-time; even then, the visitors came away only with a penalty goal right on the bell.

The Brumbies then needed to be the first on the board in the second half. They weren't. I'd only just finished firing a text message back to Australia, saying the Brumbies had to register the first points after the break, when Ardie Savea crashed over in the 43rd minute.

The efficiency of what they did was what got the Hurricanes home, though.

They made 75 fewer tackle attempts than the Brumbies, at a much better success rate. And at the set-piece, they lost none of their scrum feeds or lineout throws while pulling three tight-heads and stealing a lineout from the Brumbies.

The Canes' dominance really showed when they had the ball: 60% possession and territory produced 35 defenders beaten, 19 clean breaks, and 20 offloads; the Brumbies made well fewer than half those numbers in each measure, while the Hurricanes also ran for nearly twice as many metres.

It was little wonder Boyd conceded post-match in his typically understated tones that his side "probably did" leave a few tries out on the pitch. And it's little wonder that the runaway competition leaders will host the final in front of another sold-out 'Cake Tin'.

A happy Hurricanes fan left Te Papa after securing a seat for the Super Rugby final © Getty Images

Highlanders show value of adaptability and Plan B

For all the talk around home semi-finals and the obvious advantage they bring, there is one trivial but still significant detail not widely considered: the hosts still have to play and win the game itself.

Waratahs 17-35 Highlanders (Australia only)

The Waratahs started a bit slowly in their semi-final against the Highlanders, even though they scored the first try having conceded the first points, but they managed to keep pace and there was only point in it at half-time. The Waratahs then decided to pull the "aggression" rein in the second half, but the Highlanders responded with interest; it's fair to say Waratahs supporters didn't see the loss coming, but there should be no doubt the better team won on the night.

We spoke this week in Scrum5 about the Highlanders kicking 35 times for the game, and how this was a significant lift from the 20 kicks against the Chiefs in the qualifying final; but this fluctuation was very typical of the Highlanders' game-to-game adjustment in 2015.

And it is very much game-to-game. When you look back through their kicking numbers in this back half of the season, the Highlanders have regularly shown an ability to switch between their kicking and running game plans as the situation dictated.

Working back all the way to the start of their South African tour, the Highlanders kicks tally looks like this: 35 (v the Waratahs), 20 (v the Chiefs in the qualifying final), 28, 19, 33, 39, 31, and 22 times against the Lions in Round 13.

This adaptability served them well throughout the semi-final.

The Highlanders' Ash Dixon and Richard Buckman celebrate victory with fans © Getty Images

Sobering thought for Australian readers

All five New Zealand sides have played in a Super Rugby final, and this weekend will see a fourth champion crowned from the other side of the Ditch. How long will it be before Melbourne Rebels and Western Force play in a grand final, never mind one of them winning a title?

The resurgence of the Highlanders since the failed experiment of signing All Blacks superstars in 2013 is something to learn from. Title contenders can emerge out of the unheralded, as this merry band of southerners are showing. But I've gone on enough about the Highlanders through the season.

The grand final will also see a fourth new titleholder emerge in the fifth and final year of the three-conference format. Fifteen years of Super 12 and 14 produced just four different winners, and it's quite astounding to think that 20 years of Super Rugby will have produced just eight winners overall before we expand again.

Good luck to both teams. I've got an obvious soft spot for the Highlanders, but it was difficult not to be swept up in the whole Hurricanes euphoria that has swept over Wellington last weekend. And good luck to referee Jaco Peyper, too, who will be officiating in his first Super Rugby final.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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