The unfancied Highlanders prevailed from an enthralling Super 15 final thanks to a combination of industry and intelligence.
“Nobody said we could” – that was the rabid rallying cry issued by fly-half Lima Sopoaga as the Highlanders took to the pitch for the second period of Saturday’s phenomenal Super 15 decider against the Hurricanes.
There is nothing quite like defiance to galvanise a rugby team. Given Jamie Joseph‘s side were 13-5 up at the break, the doubters would have been sweating profusely as a frankly absurd opening 40 minutes finished.
Back in May, the brilliant Scotty Stevenson wrote that the Highlanders are “beyond explanation” and underpinned by “oddness and idiosyncrasies”. Often, their success defies logic itself. Flouting punters who had backed their opponents, an outfit with 15 wins from 17 matches this season, felt natural.
Stevenson interviewed captain Nasi Manu on the podium at the end of a 21-14 win, and the skipper’s demeanour defined the Otago and Southland franchise. He was understated, almost subdued, in front of the microphone. Then, after lifting the trophy and seeing the cameras pan out, the Edinburgh-bound No 8 led the team song.
It was as though Manu needed his mates to extract his ebullience, which provided a neat portrait of the outfit as a whole – one worth far more than the sum of their parts.
In some ways the Highlanders are strikingly unconventional, which renders analysis rather redundant. However, there were some very tangible aspects to their win over the Hurricanes. Here is a glance at five of them.
Sopoaga betters Barrett
Dan Carter will get the first chance to stake a claim for the New Zealand number 10 jersey against Samoa on Wednesday. However, Sopoaga did himself no harm whatsoever with a fine display opposite fellow contender Beauden Barrett.
Two attacks offer an idea of how the pair contrasted in terms of decision-making and execution. First, watch Barrett attempt to scythe through the defensive line:
As he receives a pass from Reggie Goodes, the Highlanders wide defence shoots up to shut down his options. Clocking props Brendon Edmonds and Josh Hohneck in front of him, Barrett backs himself to create an opening:
Summing up the industry and efficiency of their pack as a whole (which we will get onto later), Hohneck and Edmonds stand up to the situation.
The former makes the tackle before the latter gets over the ball, survives the clean-out from Goodes and wins a penalty from referee Jaco Peyper:
Punishing this instance of trying too much from too deep – something the Hurricanes were often guilty of – Sopoaga nails three points from halfway:
This came after Barrett had missed a couple of early kicks, compounding the feeling of frustration around Westpac Stadium.
Later on, Sopoaga had a chance with the ball in hand and produced an even better outcome:
Darting between replacement loosehead and Chris Eves and lock James Broadhurst, he capitalises on a mismatch with a wicked step:
Illuminating how much better the Highlanders picked their passes, throwing far fewer low-percentage balls, Sopoaga gets an offload away to the effervescent Hohneck. Jeremy Thrush promptly concedes a penalty for failing to support his weight at the ensuing ruck:
…and spreads the ball to find Patrick Osborne via centres Malakai Fekitoa and Richard Buckman:
On the bounce back, two punchy carries from the forwards manufacture room for the backs and Waisake Naholo goes over:
The killer pass here is Sopoaga’s, which goes behind decoy Shane Christie to Ben Smith:
In a neatly-worked slice, Brad Shields is sucked out of the drift and Smith is put into acres of space:
Sopoaga was also instrumental in how the Highlanders controlled the territorial exchanges.
The restart following the aforementioned try encapsulates the way in which the Highlanders implemented an intelligent kicking game.
After his pack gathers the ball, Aaron Smith hoists high:
The weight on this kick is perfect, but the first thing to consider is the whereabouts of Hurricanes right wing Nehe Milner-Skudder, who is up in the line having pursued the restart:
That takes one member of the back three out of action from the start. The second, James Marshall, is sought out by Smith’s kick and knocks on under immense pressure from Osborne’s excellent chase:
Two down. As the camera pans out, we see left wing Julian Savea, the last back three member standing, move infield to cover as the Highlanders recover possession:
As the ball eventually comes to Sopoaga, he grubbers into the space behind onrushing Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith for Naholo to collect and dab down the touchline as Savea comes across:
Tellingly, Sopoaga chases up even as the ball goes out, picking up the ball to stop TJ Perenara taking the quick lineout:
While this could easily be labelled as gamesmanship, it certainly underlines the awareness and diligence across this Highlanders effort. They were relentless.
Pinpoint positioning, incisive running lines, calm distribution, even a strip from the clutches of Savea – you could pick out a great deal from another superb Ben Smith outing.
It may seem strange then, that the phenomenal All Blacks full-back is highlighted here for some sensational defending around the ruck. But the passage epitomised his team’s desire.
It all begins as Conrad Smith goes through:
Ben Smith tracks his namesake, retains his balance…
…and takes his international ally around the sternum, wrapping up the ball to stop any chance of an offload:
The Hurricanes pile through and Perenara snipes to within metres. By this time though, Smith has returned to his feet and contests for the ball on the ground:
He looks aggrieved at not winning a penalty decision and gesticulates towards Peyper. Judging by this snapshot, he has a point too:
Playing to the whistle though, Smith keeps plugging away, tackling Nonu from the guard position…
…and then piling through to force a knock-on from Goodes at the base:
The emotion in Smith’s reaction speaks volumes. This title meant so much to the Highlanders that they often forgot what position they were playing in.
Another thing mentioned by Scotty Stevenson’s piece in the New Zealand Herald earlier this season was how this side has little regard for the “natural order of things”.
In short, their players have gone the extra mile, heading outside the conventional job descriptions of their positions. This full-stretch tackle from lock Alex Ainley on Milner-Skudder crystallised such dedication:
Milner-Skudder has made numerous defenders look stupid this campaign. Even so, 33 year-old Ainley hunted him down and snuffed out his outside arc with a disciplined drift and an athletic intervention:
Equally atypical was a counter-ruck from Osborne that eventually led to Elliot Dixon‘s pivotal score.
Wide channels often present turnover opportunities because attacking sides cannot resource rucks as well. Still, this brawny piece of breakdown work from Osborne is seriously impressive:
Only some manic scramble defence stops Buckman going over from Aaron Smith’s pass. Field position had been attained, though. From here, the pack could cause mischief.
Stepping up at set-piece
Remarkably, there was not one Test cap among the Highlanders forwards. Openside flanker James Lentjes had been hauled out of club rugby as well.
Reputations offer tantalising targets. On his 50th appearance for this franchise, Dixon was outstanding. It was he who was thrust up to nab Dane Coles‘ throw here, foreshadowing his own powerful five-pointer:
At full extension, the lift from Edmonds and Mark Reddish is imposing:
With around 14 minutes on the clock, the Highlanders were leading 3-0 and found themselves soaking up pressure. Aaron Smith held up a Hurricanes surge over the line, handing the hosts a five-metre scrum.
Hohneck held firm, forcing Goodes to fold in and infringe:
Around an hour later, tension was at its peak. The Hurricanes were well in touch at just 18-14 down and had a dangerous lineout.
Then came a ballsy piece of maul defence that utterly outfoxed Mark Boyd’s men:
From a camera angle behind Coles, we can see that the Highlanders stand back, refusing to engage with the the Hurricanes and leaving space between the packs:
While the Hurricanes have already set up their shape and transferred the ball backwards from the jumper, no maul is formed. Consequently, there is no offside line and Dan Lienert-Brown can tear around the fringe to tackle Shields and Coles:
Manu joins in from the opposite side…
…and the ball goes forward. This proves too enticing for the pod of Hurricanes and they interfere from an offside position, handing the Highlanders a penalty. They pull off an intricate tactic flawlessly. Manu punches the air.
We have not mentioned Marty Banks‘ nerveless drop-goal here, nor some probing, innovative attacks. Only two of 23 offloads are mentioned.
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But hopefully these five facets go some way towards illustrating the blend of commitment, craft and composure that these wonderful outsiders brought to this season’s Super 15.
The Highlanders crashed the party. Then they stole the show.