The Highlanders band of rejects cemented their fairytale season with the Super 15 crown when they outplayed the more illustrious Wellington Hurricanes 21-14 in a frenetic final on Saturday.
The historic first title for the Highlanders was only the fifth time in the 20-year history of Super rugby that the home team has been beaten in the final of the southern hemisphere club competition.
The composite team from the south, with co-captain Ben Smith the only member born in the Highlanders catchment area, ventured north to the Hurricanes Westpac Stadium and scored two tries to one.
But while the Highlanders, with few known names, had been largely written off at the start of the season,scrum-half Aaron Smith said they always had faith in themselves.
“No one believed in us and I said to the boys ‘earn the right to be called champions’ and we did it,” Smith said.
“We’re just down south being humble and doing our thing. We’ve done it. We’ve proved everyone wrong.”
The Hurricanes, pacesetters throughout the year, fell at the final hurdle, despite having a very vocal home crowd support, and captain Conrad Smith said they had no excuses.
“We met a Highlanders side that played out of their skin. I take my hat off to them, they deserve to be victorious,” he said.
From the opening three minutes of helter-skelterrugby, which ended with a penalty to Lima Sopoaga to open the scoring for the Highlanders, to a final drop goal by Marty Banks, the game was played at a relentless pace.
It was also packed with emotion, with neither side having previously won the championship.
The Hurricanes were also bidding farewell to a band of senior players including All Blacks Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Ben Franks and Jeremy Thrush.
They played with the initials JC stitched on their jerseys in memory of former teammate Jerry Collins who was recently killed in a car accident in France.
Fielding 10 players with Test experience, the Hurricanes dominated territory and possession only to be outplayed by a Highlanders unit, with only three experienced All Blacks, who belied their reputation as a team of unwanted nobodies.
Sopoaga moved to the Highlanders from Wellington to escape the shadow of Beauden Barrett, and Banks, who sealed the outcome at the end when the ‘Canes had closed to within four points, is another Hurricanes reject.
Elliot Dixon, who scored a crucial try on half-time to put the Highlanders ahead 13-5, joined the franchise from Canterbury where the Crusaders were stacked with All Blacks loose forwards.
Dixon again featured after the resumption of play when he drew two defenders to put Waisake Naholo over. Naholo, the top try scorer in the competition this year, signed up for the Hurricanes after being rejected by the Auckland Blues.
Aaron Smith, who engineered the victory with his astute direction of play, is another Highlander who has moved south from Hurricanes territory.
Ma’a Nonu scored the Hurricanes sole try in the 35th minute but after that they were never to breach the Highlanders defence again, with Barrett providing the rest of their points from three penalties. – Agence France-Presse