Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Defensive effort leads Hurricanes to promised land

Faf De Klerk of the Lions looks to make a break during the 2016 Super Rugby Final match between the Hurricanes and the Lions at Westpac Stadium. Photo / Getty Images
Faf De Klerk of the Lions looks to make a break during the 2016 Super Rugby Final match between the Hurricanes and the Lions at Westpac Stadium. Photo / Getty Images

It's a lovely old cliché about defence winning titles. It's simple and, as the Hurricanes have proven, it's also true.

Great entertainers that they are, it was their defensive effort that won the Hurricanes their maiden title. It was their defence that made them champions, separated them from the rest of the pack in the final weeks. What can't get lost in the celebrations and rightful praising of the heroic work, again, of Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett who broke the hearts of the Lions, is that the Hurricanes completed the most incredible feat of going through the playoffs without conceding a try.

That's something that may never be done again and was the bedrock of all the attacking football they played in the last three weeks.

They saved their best for last, though. The Hurricanes defence in the final was quite superb. It was relentless and unforgiving and with the sort of intimidating edge that got to the Lions.

The visitors were plucky and resourceful. They came to play their preferred game of adventurous and expansive rugby and didn't seem to give two hoots about the weather.

But they couldn't deal with the speed of the Hurricanes' defensive line. They couldn't ever quite relax and play as freely as they wanted because, in the first 20 minutes, they were hit hard on the gainline.

Brad Shields was a colossus. This was maybe his finest hour - tackling his heart out and standing up to a big pack who hadn't really been buckled by anyone coming into the final.

Michael Fatialofa had a big shift, too, and Victor Vito, in his last and 100th game for the Hurricanes, was hitting big men square on and hurting them. The physicality and abrasiveness was at the level coaches love. It was at the level they always hope they will see but can't ever be sure they will get it.

The picture was much the same in the midfield and it didn't take long for the Lions' ball carriers to hit the line with half an eye on the ball and half an eye on the fast-approaching yellow-and-black line.

The inevitable spillages mounted up. The Lions couldn't find holes - they could get the ball wide - couldn't do anything but feel they were under siege.

They ran nowhere and, as the game wore on, they lost all hope that they were ever going to find a way through. Panic slowly gripped them and, by the second half, they were unravelling.

That was the effect of the Hurricanes' defence. It broke the Lions' spirit and no one looked more broken than Elton Jantjies.

The young man whose growth this year has been impressive, didn't settle into his role as chief playmaker. He looked a touch frazzled at the pressure he was having to play under and his miscued penalty on 63 minutes - a critical opportunity - was evidence of the shakiness he was feeling. For all the advances he has made this year, maybe he's still carrying an element of psychological vulnerability.

It was a big miss because, trailing 13-3, the Lions needed to get the scoreboard moving. They hadn't looked like scoring a try and, if they were going to have any hope of salvaging the game, they were going to have kick four penalties.

- NZ Herald

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