Preview: Super Rugby Final

Date published: July 2 2015

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The first all-New Zealand final since 2006 sees the best two sides in Super Rugby come together when the Hurricanes host the Highlanders.

In terms of table points and performances no side has been better in the competition than these two, meaning there can be no arguments about the make-up of the final.

The Hurricanes tied the record for the most Super Rugby wins in a season after counting up 14 from their 16 matches, while the Highlanders will arrive in Wellington after wins over the Chiefs and Waratahs in the play-offs and finishing on 53 points which would have been enough to come second without the Conference system.

Given the dominance of the Crusaders in the early 2000s and then the success of the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013, the Hurricanes and Highlanders have been forced to bide their time for success.

By full-time on Saturday though we will have a new Super Rugby winner as each side look to send off loyal heroes with a Super Rugby medal in their suitcase.

Conrad Smith will go down in history as one of the great Hurricanes but before he begins his next chapter with Pau it would be fitting to see him head to France as a Super Rugby champion after 11 years with the franchise and eight as captain since 2007. Ma'a Nonu, Ben Franks and Jeremy Thrush are also moving on.

"He's probably the most determined individual I've ever had anything to do with. He hates to lose at anything, at any stage, in any way, shape or form," Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said about Smith to Stuff.

"He's had a steely determination about his preparation this week as have other guys. He'll be sorely missed.

"Not only has he played well, but he's grown significantly as a leader and led the boys really well."

Nasi Manu on the other hand is heading to Scotland but the Highlanders co-captain has become a cult figure in Dunedin and his teammates will be desperate to give him the perfect finale.

Emotions therefore will be running high, even more so for the Hurricanes who remembered Jerry Collins before last weekend's semi-final in front of a sold-out 34,000 crowd. 

The Hurricanes have shown they can channel those emotions into results while keeping their focus and that remains the challenge on Saturday.

They will also have to handle expectation. The scales are tipped in the Hurricanes favour when you look back on their season and a 20-point semi-final win over the Brumbies, plus the advantage of playing at home.

Tries certainly won't be in short supply with the Hurricanes scoring 61 to the Highlanders' 60 this year, the top two totals in the competition, but otherwise the Hurricanes are completely dominant on attack with the most clean breaks, carries, defenders beaten and metres run in 2015.

While the Highlanders aren't exactly shy of the try line with their back three of Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith, their kicking game has been crucial having made the most kicks from hand.

Also, players like Manu, Malakai Fekitoa and Elliot Dixon have all propelled the Highlanders to winning the most turnovers and they have to limit the Hurricanes' possession in order to keep their biggest threats at bay and for the full 80 minutes too, when you consider that the Hurricanes have scored the most tries in the final quarter of matches this year.

One area you feel the Highlanders have to attack though is the lineout, where they hold the third-best success percentage compared to the Hurricanes who rank 13th. You write them off though at your peril, as we saw in Sydney, and their rise has been remarkable since finishing 14th just two years ago.

So which style wins – the Hurricanes desire to keep the ball in hand to run their opponents ragged, or the Highlanders methodical approach that feels more suited to both Test and finals rugby?

Saturday's epic can't come soon enough.

The last time these teams met: Less than a month ago the Highlanders rested both Aaron and Ben Smith along with a handful of other players but paid a big price as the Hurricanes thrashed them 56-20, running in eight tries. Ma'a Nonu grabbed two scores within three minutes after coming off the bench as the table toppers outclassed their visitors comprehensively in Napier.

Players to watch: The Hurricanes are doing their best to give Ardie Savea as much time as possible to recover from a knee strain in time for Saturday's final and rightly so, because the young openside gives the Hurricanes huge power with the ball in hand and at the breakdown. With Savea also unlucky to miss out on the All Blacks squad for the Rugby Championship, he would love another chance to send a message to Steve Hansen. Elsewhere we will be keeping tabs on the electric Nehe Milner-Skudder, who has dazzled us all season with his dangerous runs off the wing or at full-back.

For the visitors Aaron Smith has been the Highlanders' outstanding player in a special season, with the New Zealand number one scrum-half showing not just his usual threat running the ball when you consider his impressive pace, but with the way he manages the game so cleverly with the boot. No player has kicked more this year than Smith but he does it so effectively. Smith has also chipped in with nine assists and seven tries this season. Plenty also rides on the boot of Lima Sopoaga who has enjoyed his best Super Rugby campaign but he has also missed the most penalties and second-most conversions in 2015.

Team news: Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has named an unchanged starting XV. Boyd's only change to his matchday squad comes at reserve hooker where Motu Matu’u returns from a knee injury which means Brayden Mitchell drops out of the squad. Ardie Savea’s knee will continue to be monitored throughout the remainder of the week, with Callum Gibbins bracketed as cover should Savea not be deemed fit. If Savea does not play and Gibbins comes in to the run-on side then Mark Abbott will be added to the replacements bench.

The Highlanders have gone with an unchanged side. Elliot Dixon will make his 50th Super Rugby appearance for the Highlanders, while co-captains Ben Smith and Nasi Manu will once more lead the side. The only change to the squad comes on the bench, where Marty Banks replaces Trent Renata, while coach Jamie Joseph has stuck with six forwards on the bench.

Form: The Highlanders interestingly have won on their last four visits to Wellington, although the Hurricanes have won the last two meetings between the two teams with the last 13 contests before the one-sided game in Napier being won by seven points or less.

The Hurricanes' only two defeats this year have come to the Waratahs and Crusaders, while the Highlanders' last three defeats have all been away from home. Both teams have scored over 450 points this year while the Highlanders have conceded nine more tries than the Hurricanes.

Predictions: Very tough to call, given that the Highlanders have provided us with plenty of surprises over the last two years. However the Hurricanes' home form, losing only one game in Wellington this year, and the rugby we've seen them produce in 2015 tip the balance in their favour. Let's hope for one of the great finals to match both sides' extraordinary efforts this year. Hurricanes by 8!

Previous results: 
2015: Hurricanes won 56-20 in Napier
2015: Hurricanes won 20-13 in Dunedin
2014: Highlanders won 18-16 in Wellington
2014: Highlanders won 35-31 in Dunedin

The teams:

Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea/Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Callum Gibbins/Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 Matt Proctor

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (vc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (vc), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Gareth Evans, 22 Fumiaki Tanaka, 23 Marty Banks.

Date: Saturday 4 July
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT, 09:35 SAST, 17:35 AEST)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Craig Joubert (South Africa)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

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