Hurricanes vs Highlanders | Saturday 04 July 2015 | Westpac Stadium | 09:35
Following twenty weeks of hard-hitting, free-running, frenetic rugby we come to the conclusion of the world’s premier inter-domestic championship. The final sees Jamie Joseph and his underdogs from Dunedin take on Chris Boyd’s all-star cast in ‘Canes country. The encounter will be refereed by Jaco Peyper whilst his South African compatriot Craig Joubert will be running one of the touchlines. To the purist, this is the final that should have taken place. It’s the two teams that finished on the highest amount of points after the round robin phase. This encounter should be one for the ages and will see the competition’s two most proficient attacking sides go head-to-head for the third time this season. In total, the sides have faced each other 33 times in Super Rugby with the Hurricanes winning twelve and the Highlanders taking the spoils on eleven occasions. Make sure you’ve cleared your schedule for Saturday morning and placed those bets.
To Win (80mins)
To Lift the Cup
Hurricanes (-6.5) 9/10
Highlanders (+6.5) 9/10
The Hurricanes go into this derby with the favourites tag firmly fixed to their name and for good reason; out of the seventeen games they’ve played in the tournament so far they’ve only failed to win two. In the process the men from Wellington have amassed a total of 487 points whilst they have conceded 237 points. Last weekend they ran rampant in the second half against a fatigued Brumbies side. The final scoreline of 29-9 is somewhat flattering considering the amount of point scoring opportunities the ‘Canes butchered in the opening twenty minutes. Although coach Chris Boyd would have been peeved with the handling errors he would have found solace in the way his forward pack rectified what has been their Achilles heel this season, the lineout. Much of the credit for the improvement at this set phase should go to the locking duo of Jeremy Thrush and James Broadhurst who were solid on their own throw and disrupted their opponents. They both retain their starting places for this match and along with hooker Dane Coles, offer assured ball carrying options. The aforementioned Thrush is one of the seven Hurricanes players who will don the yellow and black for the final time on Saturday. Fellow tight-five compatriot and former Crusaders prop Ben Franks will also appear on Westpac turf for the last time.
In the backline, the All Blacks centre pairing of Nonu and Smith will bid their farewells and strangely their understudy Rey Lee-Lo - who offers an assured option off the bench for this weekend - is also out of the door come the conclusion of this final. Coach Chris Boyd has endured injury concerns this week with Cory Jane not fit enough to make the squad whilst Ardie Savea and Nehe Milner-Scudder were both injury doubts for this encounter. Ardie Savea has been bracketed with Callum Gibbins on the team sheet whilst Milner-Scudder has already been declared fit enough to start. In terms of game-changers, the ‘Canes are packed full of men who can turn the match on its head including pivot Beauden Barrett. However, the key man may be the aforementioned Milner-Scudder. He possesses that coveted x-factor in abundance. Harry Houdini would be envious of his slight of hand whilst Fred Astaire could only wish to emulate the footwork the Hurricanes winger-come-fullback produces week in and week out.
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The Highlanders have revelled in their underdog status this season and last weekend’s semi-final was no different. The men from Dunedin travelled to New South Wales to play the Australian conference toppers, with most pundits writing them off. Jamie Joseph’s men showed scarce regard for the expert’s opinions and came through their test against the Waratahs with flying colours, running out 35-17 victors at the Allianz Stadium. The Highlanders are rightful finalists in my opinion; they finished with the second-highest points tally after the round robin phase and under the old Super Rugby format they would have enjoyed a home semi-final. Instead, they had to endure a home playoff against the Chiefs and then a semi-final away from home to reach the tournament’s showpiece game. In terms of team news, Jamie Joseph is leaving it late to announce his match day squad but he should have impressive young ten Lima Sopoaga available. The young gun tweaked his knee before their semi-final against the ‘Tahs but came through the eighty minutes. He has sat out a few practices this week but should be good to go for the final. The only real position of concern for Joseph will be the openside flank berth; James Lentjies excelled in the role against the ‘Tahs and will most likely be given another bash as he is the only genuine openside option available. Lentjies’ task could be made easier if Ardie Savea doesn’t take to the field on Saturday; if he does it will be a massive test for the young flanker.
On to the men who could swing the game in the Highlanders’ favour. Their All Black trio of centre Fekitoa, nine Aaron Smith and fullback Ben Smith have provided an impressive spine to the backline whilst the competition’s leading try scorer Waisake Naholo will offer a threat out wide. Amongst the forwards the locking duo of Alex Ainley and Mark Reddish will look to apply the pressure come lineout time. Dunedin’s representatives are yet to taste victory against their domestic rivals this season going down 13-20 at home in Round 6 and then suffering a bit of a hammering at Westpac in Round 16. However, this should be more of a motivating factor rather than a psychological hindrance. This will be the Highlanders’ first Super Rugby final appearance since 1999 and they will hope it will be their first victory.
VERDICT: Highlanders 22/10
It may not be the most common choice amongst the pundits but I’m backing the Highlanders to pull off another shock result away from home. 22/10 offers great value for a team that must be so high on confidence they’d make Keith Richards look sober.