A decade ago the Hurricanes’ hopes faded in a shroud of fog. Last year as favourites they again fell at the final hurdle.
But tonight, after 20 years of hurt, the Hurricanes at last claimed their maiden Super Rugby crown, dispatching the Lions on a miserable but memorable night in Wellington.
The hex of the Hurricanes is finally over. While the weather and an error-prone opponent conspired to remove some sheen from the showpiece, the men from the capital cared little as they shed the tag of perennial under-achievers.
They did that the same way they had progressed throughout the conclusion to the campaign – with an inspired defence. The Hurricanes, remarkably, avoided the concession of a try throughout the post-season, finding a formula that would prevent any more final heartbreak.
It’s now nothing more than a footnote but, initially, even reaching the final seemed some way off. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were gone, they copped a 50-point thrashing in their first game and lost Nehe Milner-Skudder for the season
But after rattling off seven consecutive victories to secure a second straight home decider, they finished the job in methodical fashion to join a now-complete Kiwi cohort of Super Rugby champions.
Along with their resolute defensive wall, the championship was clinched with a timely star turn from Beauden Barrett. His boot has been a real weapon in these playoffs and, both in open play and off the tee, that continued tonight.
Where in last year’s final the magnitude of the moment told, Barrett exuded control throughout the contest. It was fitting for the first five to score the try that essentially sealed the result, just as it was fitting for Ardie Savea to make more hard-won metres, for Brad Shields to inflict some pain, for Cory Jane to enjoy a pivotal moment.
It was the veteran wing who put his side in front, shrugging off an early disallowed try from Barrett’s inch-perfect cross kick to somehow haul in Lionel Mapoe’s clearing prod with one hand before crashing across.
The Hurricanes certainly deserved their halftime advantage but there were a few warning signs, with the Lions at first looking like they knew what they were doing in the swirling wind and rain of the Cake Tin.
They found success kicking high and largely repressed their natural running game, enjoying a good period inside the 22 before the break. But, just like the Chiefs last week, they erred in passing up points and, still chasing a solitary title of their own, will recall with regret that decision.
The Hurricanes, as has been their wont, survived that spell, repelling their opponent with a combination of imposing line speed and bone-crushing dominance at the collision.
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A seed of doubt was planted in the Lions’ minds and handling errors were a result, mistakes that just kept on mounting for the visitors. While it took some time for those miscues to become costly on the scoreboard, they were certainly psychologically damaging.
The Lions just couldn’t build pressure, failed to find any fluency. The side who led the competition in try-scoring were simply blown away.
It left the Hurricanes within one moment of getting their hands on the trophy and, much like the match, it was messy when it arrived through Barrett. Although, as the eruption from the 35,000-strong crowd showed, aesthetics were far from important.
Only the final whistle mattered and, when it came, it provided a fitting farewell for Victor Vito in his 100th and final game, and offered a brilliant reward for coach Chris Boyd, who somehow shook off last year’s agony to guide his side to glory.
And, most of all, that whistle sparked a truly special moment for a set of long-suffering fans who, until now, had endured only the opposite.
Hurricanes 20 (C. Jane, B.Barrett tries; B. Barrett 2 pens, 2 cons)
Lions 3 (E. Jantjies pen)