Coming into the final lavished with praise for their attack, naturally it was the Hurricanes’ remarkable defensive effort which ended their Super Rugby title drought in Wellington against the Lions.
Throughout the quarter-finals, semi-finals and Saturday’s final, they didn’t concede a single try. How’s that for a mark of a great team. Defence still reigns in the big finals.
It’s taken 21 years and now after two previous final losses the Hurricanes are champions, and also the fifth and final of the New Zealand franchises to win a Super Rugby title, completing the set.
It wasn’t so much the tackle counts – although the excellent Ardie Savea and Brad Shields made 14 and 12 respectively – but the ferocity of the collisions and the consistency the Hurricanes showed in timing their rush.
Nothing seemed to rattle the Lions in the semi-final, however a week on every time they lost the territory battle and found themselves pinned back in their 22, their decision-making was poor and huge errors cost them points.
Even the excellent Faf de Klerk mis-fired with his kicking at key moments, while Elton Jantjies struggled.
The sight of both of them afterwards collecting their runners-up medals, with battered and bruised faces, told the story of how often they were hounded by the ‘Canes back-row.
Failure to clear their lines truthfully cost the Lions from the start, Ruan Combrinck’s poor kick starting a passage of play which ended with Barrett’s penalty to make it 3-0, and it was a similar story for the first try – Jantjies unable to beat the rush to clear, the Lions then frantically searching for an outlet in the wider channels before Cory Jane swooped.
TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett by contrast weren’t perfect, but they were certainly better tactically.
Barrett kicked 21 times to nine by Jantjies, pointing to both Barrett’s decision-making and how often Jantjies found himself unable to kick and shipping the ball along to prevent the Lions from going backwards. By shutting down Jantjies’ time and space on the ball, he couldn’t flourish as he did to such a great effect during the semi-final.
Experience certainly counted too. De Klerk and Jantjies are still new Springboks, while Perenara and Barrett have not only learned from last year’s final defeat and are established All Blacks, but have also shown a real maturity in stepping up into new leadership roles, Perenara especially. They made better decisions, and better kicks, more often.
Barrett too has been the player of the year, his sublime chip over to Jane going unrewarded in the early stages after it was correctly chalked off due to an earlier knock-on, except this time in the final it was his hunger and sharp instincts to win the race to a slippery ball which made sure the trophy was staying in Wellington after the try to go 20-3 up, having kicked magnificently off the tee considering the wind.
He and Ardie Savea can guide New Zealand to fifth straight Rugby Championship title, but before that the fly-half should get a round in for his flanker and back-row colleagues Shields and the departing Victor Vito.
The impact that trio made on defence, and the speed with which they did so, are why the Hurricanes will be celebrating long into the night.