It was a classic David and Goliath scenario and nobody can dispute that the unfancied Highlanders were good value for their 21-14 win over the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby final.
With just three All Blacks in their ranks, the men from New Zealand’s South Island were written off by media before the match but used that as motivation to become only the fifth side to win a Super Rugby final away from home.
In a highly entertaining match that was seen as an All Blacks trial game by many, the Hurricanes were clearly affected by pressure of trying to secure a first Super Rugby title for their fans – having previously lost in the 2006 final.
The loss seemed a particularly unfitting tribute to veteran centre Conrad Smith who, after 12 years with the Hurricanes, is among the best players not to have lifted the southern hemisphere’s greatest prize.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen will be pleased that the majority of his players came though the match unscathed but will also have made note of back-up fly-half Beauden Barrett being totally outplayed by opposite number and All Blacks rival Lima Sopoanga.
2023 WORLD CUP SHORTLIST FINALISED
South Africa, France, Ireland and Italy are the confirmed candidates who will bid to host 2023 World Cup.
South Africa represents the most logical option for World Rugby. The Rainbow Nation has a track record of success in hosting major sports tournaments and also enjoys the geographic advantage of being the most easily accessible destination for all likely fans.
France hosted the tournament in 2007 and proved that there is sufficient infrastructure to host rugby’s most prestigious event. Due to the passion that exists for rugby in the country, venues will be sold out and World Rugby will be guaranteed a pretty penny if they go Gallic.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) July 3, 2015
Ireland has never enjoyed the privilege of hosting a World Cup and is this scribe’s favoured destination. In the Aviva Stadium, Thomond Park and Ravenhill there are famous rugby venues galore and imagine the spectacle of a World Cup final at the 90,000 capacity Croke Park.
Italy is a close second choice. Despite playing second-fiddle to football by quite some distance as the country’s preferred sport, rugby has a rich history in northern Italy. The recent Under-20 Rugby World Cup was hosted with aplomb and a tournament on this scale could be just what Italy needs to transform from a respected if underperforming side into a consistent Test-playing force.
MOORE NAMED WALLABIES CAPTAIN FOR 2015
Head coach Michael Cheika has made clear his desire to reinstall the consistency and discipline that has undermined Australian rugby in recent seasons by appointing Stephen Moore as skipper.
The veteran hooker of 92 Tests is renowned for his uncompromising style of play, combined with an ability to galvanise any team he plays for.
— Wallabies (@Wallabies) July 6, 2015
It is no coincidence that the Brumbies looked back to their best in this season’s Super Rugby competition after their fearless leader was reinstalled after a significant injury lay-off.
In Moore’s absence, Michael Hooper did a magnificent job as captain in 2014 and many will be surprised not to see the young flanker retain the role.
However Cheika’s shrewd appointment will allow Hooper to concentrate on his role as a ball-winner, while providing Moore with vital support on the frontline, alongside Adam Ashley-Cooper in the backs.
ENGLAND TO FOCUS ON SKILL, NOT SIZE
England forwards coach Graham Rowntree announced this week that he does not want to see his players become any bigger, instead preferring to focus on improving their skills.
This message comes as a refreshing change in a world of modern rugby, in which it is becoming increasingly commonplace to see flying behemoths have their good work on the gain line undone by sloppy handling skills.
In ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess, the Vunipola brothers and James Haskell the England team have adequate size and power to win a World Cup. But without the ability to offload and convert a two-on-one opportunity in the opposition half, that size counts for nothing.
As ever, the benchmark for achieving the perfect power-to-skill ratio is set by the All Blacks. In Richie McCaw, Kieran Reid and Liam Messam you have players that can not only bench press 120kg, but can also keep up with the backs in a game of tag rugby.
GLOCUESTER KEEN TO CONQUER THE STATES
Rumours surfaced this week that Gloucester are in advanced negotiations to take top-flight Aviva Premiership matches across the Atlantic Ocean to New York.
While this may seems like an idea doomed to failure at first glance, recent indicators suggest that there may actually be quite an appetite developing for the game across the pond.
The inclusion of rugby sevens into the Olympics will no doubt have played a part in Gloucester’s decision to pursue this idea.
Last year, New Zealand romped to victory over the USA in Chicago, roared on by a chorus of 61,500 excited local fans in what will surely become an annual fixture in the U.S. rugby calendar.
The idea of taking matches abroad was championed by forward-thinking English powerhouse Saracens. The Londoners have played matches in Cape Town and Belgium in the name of spreading rugby’s name and reaping the commercial rewards of expansion.
Even if Gloucester do not managed to play a game in the USA, these rumours are positive signs that the archaic powers traditionally governing rugby are slowly becoming aware of the game’s globalisation prospects, with those who fail to embrace the change likely to be left behind.
Key Springbok forward Duane Vermeulen will have a neck operation on Wednesday and then faces a race against the clock to be fit for the Rugby World Cup in England.
The surgery rules the 29-year-old No 8 out of five matches during July and August, including a Rugby Championship clash with New Zealand in Johannesburg.
“Duane will be put on an intensive post-operation rehabilitation programme and we will work tirelessly to get him ready for the World Cup,” team doctor Craig Roberts said.
— South African Rugby (@Springboks) July 6, 2015
South Africa open their World Cup Pool B campaign on September 19 against Japan in Brighton.
Western Stormer Vermeulen, who illustrates more than any other forward the ultra-physical South African approach, sustained the injury late in the Super 15 season.
“This is a huge setback for us,” admitted Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer. “As with any injury, it is something we simply have to overcome.
“That Duane is a world-class player was underlined last year when he was named South African Rugby Player of the Year and nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year.
“He is among the leaders in our squad and since making his debut in 2012 has become an integral member of the team.”
Roberts said: “Player welfare is very important which is why we made the decision for Duane to undergo surgery. It is the best medium and long-term career option.”
Moore gets the nod
Meanwhile, Stephen Moore has been confirmed as Australia skipper, replacing Michael Hooper.
Moore, Australia’s all-time most capped hooker with 92 Tests, has been reinstated as Wallabies captain following a season-ending injury in his first outing in charge last June.
“Stephen is not only a player who leads by example on the field, he is a man who exemplifies the qualities of a Wallabies captain,” Australia coach Michael Cheika said.
“It is a testament to his character that he has been able to overcome a setback and put himself in a position to lead his country again.
“He has a tremendous amount of respect not only from within this playing group, but across the board in our organisation and universally within the game.”
Moore will be supported by Hooper and Adam Ashley-Cooper, both named vice-captains.
“Having spoken to the two vice-captains, both of them couldn’t have made a higher endorsement of Stephen to lead them personally, this playing group and our country,” Cheika added.
When the victorious Otago Highlanders signed off the final Super 15 season with a rags-to-riches story, they underscored the lesson that championships must be earned not bought.
Two years after buying a raft of All Blacks and finishing second to last, the Highlanders fielded a team of mainly journeymen and won their first Super title with a 21-14 victory over the Wellington Hurricanes.
They attributed their upset win in part to a controversial clause in the conference system which forced them into the play-offs as the fourth best team, despite finishing second on points to the Hurricanes in the regular season.
Elliot Dixon has been named man-of-the-match. 13 tackles (no misses), one try, six carries, 38 metres, 2 beaten defenders. 1 Legend.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) July 4, 2015
“We’re over the moon with the result,” said coach Jamie Joseph who has ensured his “brotherhood”, as they call themselves, will not be under-rated when the competition evolves into Super 18 next year.
“After the last two weeks, when we had to play the Chiefs and the Waratahs we felt we had a good preparation coming into the match.
“We knew it was going to be a tough battle, like it was, and we just felt that the fact we’ve had two hard games might have been a point of difference.”
The Hurricanes, with an All Blacks-stacked backline, had home advantage and the benefit of a week off between the regular season and semi-finals which saw them installed as heavy favourites.
“The best thing about it was that no one believed,” Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith said. “We never really doubted what we could do but, obviously, the public always believed in All Blacks and history. But the best thing about Super Rugby is it’s what you do now.”
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugby) July 4, 2015
Assistant coach Tony Brown, who played for the Highlanders when they lost their only other final appearance in 1999, said the end result was no surprise.
He said: “Everyone believed that we could do it and everyone put in the work. It was nine months of hard work that paid off and now we’re going to enjoy the spoils.”
The Highlanders led all the way, held a 13-5 advantage at half-time, and outscored the Hurricanes two tries to one.
It ended a 20-year wait to become the fourth New Zealand side to win the Super crown and completed a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the southernmost club in the southern hemisphere championship.
Two years ago, the move to buy in a raft of All Blacks – including Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Hosea Gear and Brad Thorn – backfired when they won only three games.
Joseph then turned his focus on players unable to get regular time with other franchises but who wanted to be part of Super rugby and were keen on the Highlanders culture. The results were immediate.
Proud to be a Highlander pic.twitter.com/qyiYpBAdXg
— Malakai Fekitoa (@MalakaiFekitoa) July 4, 2015
With only three All Blacks in their ranks, the Highlanders finished sixth last year and took the championship this year.
The Hurricanes are now the only New Zealand side not to have won a Super title and coach Chris Boyd described Saturday’s defeat as “a massive waste of an opportunity”.
Conrad Smith, one of several long-serving All Blacks playing their last game for the Hurricanes, believed his side deserved better but was not totally despondent.
“I try to keep a perspective on things,” the Hurricanes captain said. “I’ll be trying to keep telling the guys to lift their heads because there’s a lot to be proud of. It’s a game of footy we lost. I don’t think it’s a ruined season.”