In a World Cup year, New Zealand's dominance of the Super 15 has sent a shudder through their global rivals. When it comes to attacking rugby, nobody does it better…
As if any more ballast was required to reinforce New Zealand’s World Cup credentials, it comes in the shape of this Saturday’s Super Rugby final – the first all-Kiwi affair since 2006.
The best two teams in the competition, the Hurricanes and Highlanders, will each bid to win their first-ever title in a match that has had the touts salivating. The first tranche of tickets sold out in less than a minute and Hurricanes chief executive James Te Puni said: “It’s not extreme to say we could have sold 90,000 tickets to this game.”
Both sides are capable of playing coruscating attacking rugby, yet the Hurricanes are overwhelming favourites, and not just because they have home advantage and won 14 of their 16 regular-season games – matching the Stormers’ record of three years ago.
Doing it for Jerry
First and foremost, they are harnessing an emotional power born from ‘doing it’ for a fallen team-mate. Jerry Collins played 85 games for Hurricanes before moving on in 2008 and his tragic death has given the current Hurricanes team – which includes long-time team-mate Ma’a Nonu – a cause above and beyond the glory of success on the professional treadmill. Collins’s initials are embroidered on the sleeves of the Hurricanes shirt.
The Wellington team is honouring Collins with some irrepressible rugby. Their exemplary handling skills enable them to transfer the ball rapidly to the wide men, Julian Savea and
Nehe Milner-Skudder, and the inside support runners are always there, with scrum-half TJ Perenara often the beneficiary.
It’s ping-ping rugby, executed at such pace that even the Brumbies – the competition’s best defensive team – were made to look ragged at the weekend. Only an uncustomary lack of accuracy close to the line kept the Aussies in contention for as long as an hour.
Beauden Barrett is running the show beautifully at ten, including good use of the kick-pass, and how pleasing to hear that openside Ardie Savea looks set to recover from a knee injury because this powerful young man deserves to play in a final.
The way hooker Dane Coles chased back to pressure Jesse Mogg when it seemed he would collect his grubber and score typifies the great work ethic, and the intent – as seen by Milner-Skudder tapping and running a penalty from inside his 22 – means opponents can never afford to switch off.
All this being so, you might wonder whether the Highlanders should bother turning up at the Westpac. But they have trump cards of their own, none bigger than All Black scrum-half
Aaron Smith, whose acceleration and ability to draw a man surpasses all other 9s in the world game.
After Smith set up the tries that beat the Chiefs in their first play-off game, TV analyst Justin Marshall gushed: “Manipulating defenders, speed, subtle offloads, genius!”
The Highlanders’ 35-17 win at the Waratahs, five tries to one, was a mite flattering but they showed a tactical smartness, kicking behind the ‘Tahs backs to turn them and spoiling their lineout, that couldn’t fail to impress.
Coach Jamie Joseph had his ruthless side as a player – who can forget the stamp on Kyran Bracken’s ankle in 1993? – and his side is happy to push the boundaries. They spent much of the game offside in Sydney but without ever incurring a yellow card, and nor did they care about getting booed for having a drop at goal – Lima Sopoaga nailed one to wrap things up in the closing stages.
They have no All Blacks in their pack but, as ex-Wallaby Phil Kearns grimly observed, a champion team will always beat a team of champions, and the Highlanders are playing like champions.
It won’t be 3-0!
Can they stop the Hurricanes juggernaut? You have to think it’s beyond them, even with a back division boasting the two Smiths, Aaron and Ben, abrasive centre Malakai Fekitoa and the two Fijian-born wings Patrick Osborne and Waisuke Naholo, the latter having eclipsed Jeff Wilson’s Super Rugby try record for the Highlanders. Most of these players missed the Highlanders’ 56-20 loss to Hurricanes in Napier a month ago.
With one eye on an unfavourable weather forecast, Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said of the final: “I think there will be some caution potentially but I don’t think it will be a 3-0 or 3-3 result. Both teams will want to come to play and I think it will be a good spectacle, so it will be hard and fast.”
Hard and fast is just what we’ve come to expect of New Zealand teams, whether franchises or the All Blacks themselves, and the rest of the world may watch Saturday’s encounter with a degree of trepidation. Just think of the explosive potential when many of these players join forces at the World Cup.
Super Rugby titles
Crusaders 7 (runners-up 4)
Blues 3 (1)
Bulls 3 (0)
Brumbies 2 (4)
Chiefs 2 (1)
Waratahs 1 (2)
Reds 1 (0)
Sharks 0 (4)
Hurricanes 0 (1, in 2006)
Highlanders 0 (1, in 1999)
Stormers 0 (1)