Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Big Read: Cloud of doubts shroud final bid

After two failed attempts at title and wretched luck, Hurricanes fans will be approaching tonight’s mission with a mixture of hope and dread.
The Hurricanes need to overcome the disappointments  of the past, starting in 2006, to emerge from their finals fog. Picture / NZME
The Hurricanes need to overcome the disappointments of the past, starting in 2006, to emerge from their finals fog. Picture / NZME

They reckon Irn Bru and Malibu might be the worst mix known to man. But it might actually be rugby teams from Wellington and grand finals. Stick a yellow and black jersey in a final and watch it bomb. No matter how good they have been on the way there; no mater how much swashbuckling rugby gets played in the business of making the last two, be it Wellington Lions or the Hurricanes, the last act has proven catastrophic more times than anyone in the capital can remember.

A fan base can only take so much and goodness knows what sort of head space players, coaches and fans will be in tonight if the Hurricanes don't win. There's enough pressure trying to win a Super Rugby title as it is, but for the Hurricanes, there's also the burden of the back story they carry which is one of endemic failure to clear the last hurdle.

The Hurricanes have had two cracks at the final and needless to say, didn't win either. The first was in 2006 when they were robbed more by the weather than anything else.

If it had been wet and wild in Christchurch that night, it would have suited the Hurricanes just fine and maybe they would have won. They were in great form that year - had a bit of edge about them that shook a few teams up. In the late Jerry Collins they had a bruising enforcer who was ably supported by Rodney So'oialo and Chris Masoe and with Tana Umaga, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith in the backline, they had enough finishing power to be more than a handful.

But it was fog they encountered - so thick it turned the game into a lottery and that was the Hurricanes stuffed. Why? Because once it came down to luck, everyone knows that the Hurricanes just don't have any by the last game of the season.

And so it proved. Both teams, quite seriously, ran about in the murk, barely able to see each other and there was enough corroboration to believe that somehow Crusaders centre Casey Laulala had scored a try to win it for the home side.

That was gut-wrenching for the Canes on a number of fronts. It felt, first of all, like they had been denied a fair crack after, finally, making it to the final.

They had been to the semifinal in 1997, 2003 and 2005 - being well beaten away from home each time.

In 2006, they had been good enough to finish second in the roundrobin and then use that advantage to defeat the Waratahs in Wellington. It felt different - like they were a genuine chance.

But not so and the Hurricanes defeat in the final of Super Rugby came in the midst of a confidence-crushing provincial situation which had seen the Lions lose the NPC final in 2003 and 2004 and, as it turned out, they would do so again later that same year.

A picture was forming that neither the Lions nor the Hurricanes could win big games. In modern parlance, they were both chokers and once that thought had arrived in the public conscious, it proved almost impossible to get out.

The fact that Wellington lost the provincial final again in 2007, 2008 and 2009 cemented the picture that the capital simply wasn't going to ever produce a winning rugby team.

Nothing did more to confirm that than last year's Super Rugby final.

The Hurricanes had owned the tournament from the early rounds. They had played adventurous and creative rugby that was balanced with set-piece solidity and a strong presence in the collisions.

They had been consistent all year - capable of adapting their style to suit conditions and opponents and looked too good for just about everyone. They swept to the playoffs, losing just twice and then easily beat the Brumbies in the semifinal.

They had one hand on the title. Surely this time, playing the unfancied Highlanders who they had smashed 56-20 a few weeks earlier, they couldn't go wrong? But they did it again. They played their worst game of the season in the final.

They didn't turn up physically or mentally. The Highlanders were smarter tactically, had more passion and better execution.

A few of their big names didn't perform. Julian Savea dropped an easy pass with the line beckoning and Beauden Barrett didn't exert the sort of control he had been looking for.

It was a terrible night for the Canes - their best chance of making history and they blew it and who didn't think then that they would never be back in a Super Rugby final? Or at least not back for an age.

But they have made it and as flanker Brad Shields said earlier in the week: "I'm still not over it [least year's final]. We've got another opportunity, another chance to do the club proud and hopefully get that first win."

The pain would be too much to take if they don't. Everything is set up for them.

They are playing a team that has to travel from South Africa and that's proven an impossible business. No side has flown from South Africa to New Zealand and won a playoff game.

The Hurricanes have waited 21 years for this. They are the only New Zealand side not to have won a Super Rugby title and never before have their stars aligned so well.

They are at home, confident, in form and determined to put an end to this idea they can't win finals.

But that's always been the story with them. They have always arrived in the final in good shape, it's what they do once they are there that has been the problem. For those who care, it will be a night partly driven by hope but governed more by dread.

Hurricanes in Super Rugby final

• 2006 lost 19-12 to Crusaders in Christchurch

• 2015 lost 21-14 to Highlanders in Wellington

- NZ Herald

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