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Highlanders capture first Super Rugby title

AP, Reuters

Flanker Elliott Dixon scored one try and provided the last pass in another by winger Waisake Naholo as the Highlanders shocked the Hurricanes 21-14 in Saturday’s final to win their first Super Rugby title.

Dixon carried four defenders over the goalline for a 39th-minute try that lifted the Highlanders to a 13-5 lead at halftime, then handed off to Naholo for his 13th try of the season in the sixth minute of the second half.

Those tries, on either side of halftime, boosted the Highlanders to an 18-8 lead and set them on course to their maiden championship in only their second Super Rugby final, their first since 1999.

The Hurricanes entered the match as favorites after finishing the regular season in first place but faltered in their second final.

New All Blacks flyhalf Lima Sopoaga outplayed his established international counterpart Beauden Barrett in one of the game’s key contests. Sopoaga kicked a conversion and two penalties in the first half to lift his tally for the season close to 190 points while Barrett missed his first three shots at goal before kicking three penalties in the second half to spark a Hurricanes rally.

The 23-year-old Sopoaga also implemented an accurate tactical kicking game before being forced from the field with a calf injury late in the second half. His replacement, utility back Marty Banks, then kicked a dropgoal in the 77th minute which snuffed out any possibility of a Hurricanes’ comeback.

“I think it will sink in over the next few days,” Dixon said in a pitchside interview. “Our tactics have been second to none and that’s a credit to the coaches.

“When Marty slotted that drop kick I was almost crying on the sideline.”

A capacity crowd of 35,400 packed the Wellington Regional Stadium on Saturday — most hoping to see the Wellington-based Hurricanes conclude a 19-year hunt for their first Super Rugby title. The Hurricanes played the first-ever match in the Southern Hemisphere tournament in 1996 and, with star-studded rosters, have often seemed capable of winning the title.

This year, when they finished atop the table with 14 wins from 16 games in their best season, the Hurricanes seemed more likely than ever to end that title drought but, once again, they failed to rise to the occasion and left their fans bitterly disappointed.

The Highlanders were more organized and more composed throughout the final, leading from the fourth minute when Sopoaga landed his first penalty. The Hurricanes fell away from the game plan that had served them so well throughout the season and found themselves disconcerted, inhibited by the relentlessly vigorous nature of the Highlanders’ defense.

Saturday’s match was meant to be a victorious send-off for at least six of the Hurricanes’ leading players who are not returning next season, among them captain Conrad Smith, his midfield partner Ma’a Nonu, lock Jeremy Thrush and prop Ben Franks. Instead, it became a triumph for the Highlanders who started the season as one of the least-fancied teams in the competition and blazed a brilliant trail to the final.

After achieving their best-ever regular season record to finish second only to the Hurricanes on points, they won a home quarterfinal, then traveled to Sydney to defeat defending champions the New South Wales Waratahs in the semifinals.

They were given little chance of upsetting the Hurricanes in Saturday’s final: everything seemed to have aligned in the Hurricanes’ favor. But the Highlanders seized an early lead through Sopoaga, then never released their hold on the match as the Hurricanes once again choked under the pressure of finals rugby.

Sopoaga kicked a second penalty to give the Highlanders a 6-0 lead after 27 minutes before the Hurricanes struck back with a try to Nonu four minutes before halftime. From an attacking scrum, backrower Victor Vito, winger Julian Savea and flanker Brad Shields carried the ball before the play was switched to the short side where Nonu scored close to the corner flag.

The Highlanders almost immediately hit back with a try to Dixon, who was recognized later as man of the tatch. Taking a pass from scrumhalf Aaron Smith, Dixon waded through thick defense to touch down for a try, converted by Savea, which completed the first half scoring. Though the score at halftime was only 13-5, the first 40 minutes had been played at a breathtaking pace and play had flooded from one goal line to another.

The Hurricanes cut into the lead with Barrett’s first penalty immediately after halftime but the Highlanders made the game safe with Naholo’s try in the 46th minute. The Highlanders probed the Hurricanes’ defense on both sides before moving the ball to the right and Dixon handed off to Naholo who scored.

Barrett cut into the lead with two penalties and the match hung in the balance, at 18-14, for 11 minutes, until Banks landed the late dropped goal that put the match beyond the Hurricanes’ reach.

Savea had a chance to snatch a vital try in the 61st minute but lost the ball with the line open and the Highlanders also came close to scoring in the 75th minute before Banks made the win secure.