Highlanders complete fairytale in epic final
The 2015 Super XV final was arguably the most hyped match in the competition’s 20-season history, in New Zealand at least, and it lived up to the fanfare as the Highlanders and Hurricanes produced an enthralling battle at ‘The Cake Tin’. The Highlanders, rank outsiders going into the game and probably the unlikeliest champions Super Rugby champions ever, prevailed 21-14 in an 80-minute classic that encapsulated everything good about the code.
The underdogs held a slender 6-5 lead after a pair of Lima Sopoaga penalties were negated by the first try of the night by Hurricanes stalwart Ma’a Nonu. A barnstorming charge by Highlanders flanker Elliot Dixon saw a try controversially awarded by the TMO just before halftime, providing the visitors with an eight-point buffer.
Wing sensation Waisake Naholo bagged the only try of a nerve-jangling second half, but Beauden Barrett belatedly found his radar and kept the disjointed Hurricanes in the game with two penalties. Leading 18-14 as the match headed into the dying stages, the Highlanders closed out the decider after replacement flyhalf Marty Banks slotted a clutch drop goal.
It was as stirring and popular a triumph as you are ever likely to see. The Highlanders have become ‘everyone’s second-favourite team’ thanks to their exciting and positive brand of rugby, and their repeated backs-to-the-wall, overachieving performances, which have ultimately resulted in the franchise’s maiden title after two decades of heartache and many years in the doldrums.
Two years ago, the big-spending Highlanders finished second-last, while the Otago union was broke. This year’s success, however, almost certainly rates as the greatest moment in the proud region’s rugby history. A crowd of 10,000 greeted the team at Dunedin airport on Sunday and a massive gathering is expected at a parade in the city on Monday.
Spare a though for the Hurricanes, who led the competition virtually from go to whoa and lost just two other matches, only to miss out on their chance to clinch the franchise’s first title.
Dixon the star as unheralded pack shines
The Highlanders’ performance in winning the competition without a single Test player in the forward pack is unprecedented, and the team’s triumph has led many to question why none of the gritty eight-man unit received a call-up to New Zealand’s 41-man Rugby Championship squad.
The most likely candidate to snare a World Cup spot would have to be blindside flanker Elliot Dixon, who was a resounding man-of-the-match in the final. The No.6 scored an astonishing – albeit contentious – solo try, threw the last pass for the Highlanders’ other touchdown, and was a workhorse from start to finish in a gruelling contest. Tough competition in his position will probably ensure he won’t make the cut for the World Cup, but the Southland star would not let anyone down.
‘King Julian’ dethroned
Destructive All Blacks winger Julian Savea shaped as a trump card for the Hurricanes, but it was a night to forget for the imposing try-machine. Highlanders duo Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo harangued Savea all night, before he inexplicably shelled a pass with the try-line beckoning and his side trailing by just seven points midway through the second half. Likely Test wing partner Naholo also stepped inside him for a crucial try, although Savea did produce an incredible try-saver late in the match that kept the desperate ’Canes in contention.
Money in the Banks
Marty Banks earned perpetual cult hero status with his late cameo in the final, drawing comparisons with the role Stephen Donald played for the All Blacks in the 2011 World Cup decider. Replacing injured flyhalf Lima Sopoaga with 10 minutes to go, the cool-headed Banks entered the fray and had two drop-goal chances foiled – almost engineering a match-sealing try with an elusive run after the first – before sinking a vital drop-goal in the 78th minute that gave the Highlanders a seven-point buffer.
Banks, a valuable sharpshooter for ITM Cup side Tasman, played five games for the Hurricanes in 2014 before being snapped up by the Highlanders this season. Game-time has been scarce, but he has appeared in 12 games and kick-started the franchise’s watershed campaign with a memorable long-range penalty on fulltime against the heavyweight Chiefs early in the season. He is well down the pecking order in the realms of New Zealand’s No.10s, but given the yips Barrett, Slade and Carter have experienced at crucial stages this season, the national selectors could do worse than selected Banks as a ‘Beaver’-esque back-up for the World Cup.
Unlikely champs reminiscent of NRL overachievers
For those dual-code fans out there, the Highlanders’ remarkable triumph would have evoked memories of a couple of NRL premiership successes. After finishing with the wooden spoon in 2001, a largely unheralded Penrith side won the Grand Final just two years later – a similar bottom-to-top achievement to the Highlanders’ recent effort. The Wests Tigers’ unforgettable 2005 premiership success – with a small but wholehearted pack and an exhilarating backline driving the no-name side to the title – was also built on the same principles as the southerners’ drive to Super XV glory.
SUPER XV FINAL
Highlanders 21 (Dixon, Naholo tries; Sopoaga conversion, 2 penalties; Banks drop goal) d. Hurricanes 14 (Nonu try; Barrett 3 penalties) @ Westpac Stadium, Wellington.