The Otago Highlanders stormed home to beat the Wellington Hurricanes 38-21 as Super Rugby Aotearoa, a competition launched with much fanfare when New Zealand believed it had eliminated COVID-19, closed early with the return of the virus.

The scheduled final match, a showdown on Sunday between the champion Canterbury Crusaders and their archrivals, the second-placed Auckland Blues, was canceled because of the outbreak.

The Crusaders, who reached an unassailable lead in the competition last week with a win over the Highlanders, had put celebrations on hold to avoid any distraction before finishing up against the Blues.

But the return of COVID-19 in Auckland put New Zealand’s largest city on lockdown, ruling out live sports, while lighter restrictions elsewhere in the country allowed the Highlanders to play the Hurricanes behind closed doors on Saturday.

But unlike the first seven rounds of the competition, played in packed stadiums, there were no spectators to applaud the Highlanders.

“It was bizarre really. I’ve never played a game like this before. It was absolutely silent,” Highlanders captain Ash Dixon said as his side produced a 24-point burst in the second half to cement their third win.

“It was kind of 50-50 (at halftime). We just had to tighten up our D a bit and hold on to the ball for longer phases. So we decided to hold the ball and things started to happen.”

In the roofed Dunedin stadium, the Highlanders outscored the Hurricanes five tries to three in a fast-paced spectacle but remain fourth on the table.

For the Hurricanes, who had three tries scrubbed out because of their own errors, it brought an end to a five-match winning streak and they missed a chance to overtake the Blues and finish in second place.

The first half saw Hurricanes wing Vince Aso touch down after a 70-meter counterattack.

The Highlanders replied immediately when Ngatungane Punivai, on as an injury replacement, scored with his first touch of the ball.

When scrumhalf Jamie Booth scored the Hurricanes’ second from another counter-attack, the Highlanders’ instant response was a try to Dixon — playing his 100th Super game — who scored from a lineout drive.

With the score locked at 14-14 at half-time, a Josh Ioane penalty soon after the resumption put the Highlanders in front for the first time.

Final points in the competition saw the Crusaders win with 30, followed by the Blues (24), Hurricanes (21), Highlanders (14) and the Waikato Chiefs (5).

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