Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: How the Hurricanes can ease the pain

The Crusaders celebrate their win after the fogbound Super 14 rugby final against the Hurricanes at Jade Stadium.
The Crusaders celebrate their win after the fogbound Super 14 rugby final against the Hurricanes at Jade Stadium.

Rising rugby optimism in Wellington is understandable. The Hurricanes are on a roll, have played strong, reliable footy in their backyard, have not had to travel and their Lions opponents are new to this pressure.

Conventional chat insists the Hurricanes' orthodoxy and flair, mixed in with the superior level of rugby in this part of the world, will be too much for their South African rivals at the Cake Tin tomorrow night.

Similar conversations were swirling around the same parts of the globe last year when the unfancied Highlanders came to town and dealt to their hosts.

It was a second title malfunction from the Canes to leave them as the only uncrowned New Zealand side in the competition's history.

A decade ago, they made their first Super Rugby final. They had a sackful of skill, especially in their loose forwards and, while the Crusaders had a better season record and were at home, there was a feeling their sameness and loss of injured halfback Andy Ellis had levelled the odds.

We travelled to the old Lancaster Park as fog began to envelop the area. Up high in our seats, you needed infra-red night vision glasses to make much sense of the match as referee Jonathan Kaplan and his officials did their best to adjudicate.

The slogans were right when they suggested there was nothing like being at the rugby and seeing it live. We could have been watching a repeat screening of some grainy, hazy footage from the 1905 All Blacks tour or their more recent match at Gloucester in 1993.

The Crusaders won 19-12 after Casey Laulala scored from a straight-forward cut move late in the game but the Hurricanes hit the headlines with the Tana Umaga/Chris Masoe post-match handbag slapfest at the Jolly Poacher pub.

A year ago, the Canes made it to centrestage once again. This time would be different. They were on their home turf and had beaten the Highlanders twice in pool play.

They'd blown the competition to bits, losing just twice in pool play and were favoured by most to deliver a victory for their departing crew of experienced stars.

Sitting up high in the stands, there was no fog to interrupt my view of the Canes' collywobbles. Where they had been secure and decisive, they flailed and fell as the Highlanders sniffed that uncertainty. The scoreboard spat out the verdict: Highlanders 21 Hurricanes 14.

All year, that failure has hung around the Hurricanes, not as a massive sign but a niggle to contend with. They began poorly and a repeat shot at the title looked as likely as Donald Trump making sense. The Canes pared back their work, Dane Coles returned from injury, coaches Chris Boyd with John Plumtree sifted their plans and Beauden Barrett began to purr.

The absence of an injured Nehe Milner-Skudder, James Broadhurst, Jeff To'omaga-Allen and Reg Goodes, and a misfiring Julian Savea, have tested the Canes but they've found other ways to rise. Coles' injury is a dent but they pushed past that to a semifinal triumph.

In May, they travelled to Johannesburg and beat the Lions 50-17. What could prevent a grand final repeat tomorrow?

Memories will help. The Hurricanes beat the Highlanders 56-20 last year and then felt the electric jolt of losing to the same mob in the final. Boyd will lay down the guide to the game for men such as Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito and Ardie Savea to implement.

Public sentiment will be their stretcher-bearer but the Lions have a bit about them.

They want to attack with the ball, Rohan Janse van Rensburg bosses the midfield, they have a boisterous scrum led by Malcolm Marx and gnarly competitors such as Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel.

History is not a kind companion for them, as 10 previous attempts by South African sides to win playoff games in New Zealand have failed. These Lions should say, 'that is history', irrelevant to their work.

They need to feel the burn that Japan did for their stratospheric upset against the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup or the rare success England found in Australia this year. Then we'll have a humdinger of a scrap.

- NZ Herald

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