Highlanders 21
Hurricanes 14

They pipped the pre-season favourites, defeated the defending champs and toppled the table-toppers.

The Highlanders' championship may be the most impressive in 20 years of Super Rugby.

Jamie Joseph's men tonight claimed their first crown in franchise history, edging the Hurricanes in Wellington to apply an exclamation point to their remarkable run.

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Marty Banks' drop goal with two minutes to play decided a pulsating affair, one that will live long in the memories of all who witnessed - especially Highlanders fans.

Ben Smith and Nasi Manu of the Highlanders hold up the trophy after beating the Hurricanes. Photo /Getty
Ben Smith and Nasi Manu of the Highlanders hold up the trophy after beating the Hurricanes. Photo /Getty

Only once in competition history had a team come from fourth spot to take the title - the 1999 Crusaders, who won at Carisbrook to spoil the Highlanders' only previous final appearance. But the southern side tonight erased the hurt of that 16-year-old wound, upsetting the firm favourites in front of their own fans at a sold-out Westpac Stadium.

The victory followed a semifinal win over the Waratahs in Sydney and a qualifying victory against the Chiefs in Dunedin, a run that must count among the toughest three-game stretch for any champions.

Elliot Dixon dives over to score for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty
Elliot Dixon dives over to score for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty

And if there were any lingering doubt about their title credentials, they were put to bed by a defensive masterclass against a similarly success-starved Hurricanes, the best attack in the competition and held to a season-low 14 points.

As if spurred on by the lofty stakes and electric atmosphere, almost the entire 80 was played in a frenzy that featured few stoppages and even fewer lulls. The game may have been missing a glut of points, with the Highlanders grinding out a two-tries-to-one advantage, but nothing was absent in terms of raw effort and relentless energy.

The pace and level of pressure being applied on both sides of the ball was almost too much for either attack to maintain with any consistency. Just when it seemed as though a bending defence was about to break, a ball was dropped or a transgression was committed to temporarily relieve some of the strain.

 Waisake Naholo scores for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty
Waisake Naholo scores for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty

That's not to say the game was lacking in quality, though. Far from it - the level of skill being displayed absolutely befitting the two best teams in the competition. The errors appeared to be more a case of the scales being balanced whenever they threatened to tip too far in one direction, with parity the prevailing outcome of the half.

Super Rugby final: As it happened

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The Hurricanes, especially in the first half, might have provided more of those moments of inspiration but, at the same time, they were also the guilty party when it came to squandering opportunities, with half-chances created by a Savea sprint or a Nehe Milner-Skudder step almost immediately going begging.

But to suggest they were there own worst enemies would be doing a massive disservice to the visitors. How the Highlanders managed to hang on was part-mystery and part-magnificence. It was something few other sides managed against the Hurricanes and, aside from a brief lapse before halftime when Ma'a Nonu finally managed to breach the line, the defensive effort was punishing just to watch.

Even after Nonu's try, the Highlanders immediately hit back through Elliot Dixon, whose grounding created controversy but, ultimately, created an eight-point halftime lead. With the intensity understandably dropping half a notch in the second spell, the Hurricanes were forced to chip away through the boot of Beauden Barrett, a sign of respect for the resistance they were encountering.

Ma'a Nonu scored the first try of the final. Photo / Getty
Ma'a Nonu scored the first try of the final. Photo / Getty

The home side's task became even tough when Waisake Naholo grabbed a typical try and Savea, atypically, bombed one at the other end. The Highlanders had suddenly assumed an air of vulnerability but such susceptibility was never going to last.

Worthy champions? You bet.

Hurricanes 14 (M. Nonu try; B. Barrett 3 pens)
Highlanders 21 (E. Dixon, W. Naholo tries; L. Sopoaga 2 pens, con, M. Banks dg)
HT: 5-13