Hurricanes v Highlanders
The team with the best attack in the regular season has won the final in 14 of the previous 19 seasons and each champion was rated at least 4th for points scored. That latter trend will continue in 2015 with the Hurricanes (2nd best attack) and Highlanders (3rd) contesting the final.
This will be the 5th all-New Zealand final, the last occurring in 2006 when the Crusaders beat a Hurricanes team including Ma’a Nonu.
If told before the start of the season that two New Zealand sides would end up at this stage, then it is unlikely that many would have picked this particular match up. The Chiefs and Crusaders were both available at a best price of 5.5, Hurricanes 17.0, Blues 19.0 and Highlanders 41.0.
While the Highlanders were a regular playoff side from 1998-2002 and the Hurricanes 2003-2009, neither side won a title during those periods.
Since Jamie Joseph took charge, the Highlanders have seen finishing places of 8th with 8/16 wins by an average score of 19-21, 9th with 9/16 wins at an average of 22-24, 14th with 3/16 wins at 23-31, 6th with 8/16 wins by 25-28 and 4th this year with 11/16 wins by 28-21.
The poor 2013 season does stand out and the contrast between that campaign and this one will be a likely angle of discussion in the build-up this match. The visitors weren’t that far off being a playoff team in both 2011 and 2012 though – in both cases they made strong starts (7/9 wins, twice) and then faded in the run-in (1/7 and 2/7 wins).
It may have been felt at the time that bringing in experienced All Blacks such as Woodcock, Thorn, Nonu as well as senior players like Tuiali’I, Paringatai, Rutledge on short term contracts would provide leadership and work ethic to the squad for 2013. While that didn’t prove successful it did provide Joseph with some ideas about what might work instead.
Mackintosh, Woodcock, Hore, Rutledge, Boys, Slade, Nonu, Ellison, Gear all left after 2013 and the Highlanders recruitment instead targeted hungry players that were keen to play in Super Rugby and that could offer energy to the squad. This included Fekitoa, Buckman, Evans, Christie, Franklin. There was also an element of looking at what other successful teams were doing – the Chiefs had co-captains in Messam and Clarke and Joseph adopted a similar strategy making Smith and Manu his joint skippers.
The Highlanders coach also stated that his team would be kicking more often and that in the past the balance and areas of the pitch where they had been playing the game had probably been wrong. In 2013, they averaged 127 runs a game for 497m and 18 kicks from hand a game whereas this year it was 96 runs for 418m and 25 kicks a game.
It can be forgotten that Manu only played for 39 minutes in that 2013 season and Sopoaga 216. The next year those numbers improved to 1238 and 964 respectively. Along with establishing an identity and culture that worked for them, the Highlanders have also benefitted from stability and continuity in the backline. In 2014, A Smith made 17 starts and it is 16 this year, for Sopoaga it is 14 & 17, Osborne 11 & 17, Buckman 17 & 9, Fekitoa 17 & 15, B Smith 16 & 16.
Interestingly the same can’t said for the pack and while Coltman, E Dixon and Manu have been regular features in the previous couple of season there has also been plenty of change. As an example Edmonds, Geldenhuys, Hohneck, Lienert-Brown, Tala’apitaga, A Dixon, Ainley, Reddish, Lentjes, Pryor all joined this season.
That this unheralded pack have reached a final and possess one of the better performing scrums (92%)in the competition does point to strong talent identification, coaching and a system (they had a 94% scrum even in that nightmare 2013 season) that can welcome new players quickly.They will likely play up to the underdog tag again and use it as a motivation against a team with plenty of players in the current All Blacks squad.
(Highlanders 2015 season stats)
When Mark Hammett was appointed Hurricanes coach in 2011, then captain Andrew Hore talked about how the team had been good on paper for several years and if they could get a “good culture going” and encourage spectators back then the Canes could go up a level. It might not have been expected that the 2011 season would end with Hore, Nonu, Cruden, Weepu and Gear all leaving nor that those aims would take 4 years to be achieved.
Losing 4 home games and a lack of losing bonus points cost them a playoff place in 2012 but with 58 tries and wins against the Crusaders, Chiefs and Sharks there were promising signs. Beauden Barrett made 15 starts in his first full season and TJ Peranara 11 – setting up a combination that has improved each year.
The Canes again lost 4 home games in 2013 but scored only 41 tries and saw their away form drop to 2 wins compared to 6 the season before. It might be that a change to a more structured style saw some of the backline lose confidence and only the Reds turned over more ball.
The following season they missed out on a playoff spot by a single point with the two losses against the Highlanders proving decisive. 2014 was Hammett’s final year at the Hurricanes and at the close of the season he described some of the issues that he had faced when taking over – a lack of leadership and professional standards, no succession plan, need for a high performance manager etc. It was his view that the foundations were now in place for an incoming coach – later announced as Chris Boyd – to have a crack at the title.
The return of Nonu was their major transfer for 2015 and after disappointing seasons at the Blues, Highlanders then Blues again it was hoped that playing for his old team again and a reunion of the midfield combo with Smith would be an advantage. A potential backline of Perenara, Barrett, Savea, Nonu, Smith, Jane and Woodward was perceived to be one certainly capable of reaching the playoffs.
(Hurricanes 2015 season stats)
Starting the season with 3 away games and having to manage the All Blacks game time could have been problematic – but the Canes won 7 matches in a row which gave them control of the table and plenty of confidence. They ended up with a record of 14/16 wins by an average score of 29-18 and saw less established names like Milner-Skudder, Marshall, Gibbins, Black, Lee-lo come into the team when required and play important roles. Losing Cruden was a huge blow to the Chiefs challenge and it should be noted that the Hurricanes managed to top the table despite missing their first choice at 10 – Barrett for 6 of their matches.
Below are the average match stats for both teams this season. The average for all teams in the competition was 108 runs for 427m carried a game, 8 clean breaks, 18 defenders beaten and 11 offloads.
Looking at the previous 4 games between the teams:
Hurricanes average 163 runs for 636m, 13 clean breaks, 30 defenders beaten, 14 offloads, 187 passes, 19 kicks, 109 tackles and 20 missed.
Highlanders average 106 runs for 409m, 7 clean breaks, 20 defenders beaten, 9 offloads, 127 passes, 23 kicks, 164 tackles and 30 missed.
The Hurricanes won both games against this opponent this year, with the 56-20 home win in round 15 ending a run of 12 matches in the fixture that had been decided by winning margins of 1-7 points. Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa were missing for that game though and as was seen in the 31-18 loss at the Brumbies too, having all three players out does have a serious effect on the team.
The 56-20 match also stopped a streak of 4 home defeats for the Canes against their NZ rival and it is noticeable that since 2005 the away team has won 11/16 games when these teams meet.
The hosts average a 2nd half score of 18-10 against the Highlanders since 2012 and outscored them by 7 and 19 points after the break this season. They also won the 2nd half in 15/18 games this year by an average score of 14-7.
The visitors saw a shift in their scoring patterns throughout the season. From rounds 6-12 they averaged a 1st half score of 20-10 (22-6 if the match against the Brumbies when they rested players was ignored) and then from round 13 to the semi-final – they averaged a score of 18-8 in the 2nd half with margins of 17,19,-19,17,11 and 17 points.
The Canes were the best team this season, have home advantage, arguably can go up a couple of gears from the Brumbies performance and do have those two wins over the Highlanders. However the pressure is also going to be on them. While the visitors will likely modify their tactics from the Tahs win, they remain a team well equipped to spoil the party and have won on their previous 4 trips to Wellington. They would have covered +7.5 (at 1.8) in 12 of the previous 13 matches against this opposition with the exception being the 36 point loss this season when they had rested key players.
Referee Peyper has given 11 cards in 12 matches this season, with 2 cards in 4/12 games. He was in charge of the 18-16 Highlanders away win in Wellington in 2014 and the 56-30 Hurricanes win against the Highlanders this season in Napier. He gave 9/11 of those cards to away teams and 8/11 were handed out in the 2nd half.
Ben Smith has scored 5 in 16 this season and is 5.5 anytime scorer, Dane Coles has 3 in 11 and is 7.0
Ignoring the obvious choices of goal kickers or linebreakers for man of the match – James Broadhurst is 34.0.
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea/Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Callum Gibbins/Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 Matt Proctor.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Gareth Evans, 22 Fumiaki Tanaka, 23 Marty Banks.