WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A year after a painful defeat in the final and after 21 years of unrewarded effort, the Hurricanes won the Super Rugby title for the first time Saturday, beating South Africa's Lions 20-3 in a final played in frigid conditions.
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett scored a try among 15 points for the Hurricanes to surpass his own season points-scoring record and to lead the Hurricanes to a title victory which overcame years of disappointments.
The Wellington-based Hurricanes played in the first-ever Super Rugby match in March 1996 and had played in two finals in two decades before Saturday's match, falling short in losses to the Crusaders in 2006 and the Highlanders last year.
The defeat by the Highlanders hit the Hurricanes hard as they entered that match as favorites, playing on their home ground, only to go down 21-14. Bitter memories of that as motivation this season as they reached the final again as the tournament's top-ranked team, against the Lions who were also seeking their first title.
The Hurricanes and Lions compiled the best attacking records in Super Rugby this season as they ended their regular season in first and second places, then swept imperiously through the quarterfinals and semifinals.
But they were forced to diverge from their usual attacking plans in a match played in rain and in wind which chilled the air temperature below freezing. The Hurricanes also denied the Lions with stifling defense, holding an opponent tryless for the fourth match in succession.
While they didn't achieve their best rugby, the Hurricanes still managed a try in each half. After having one try disallowed, winger Cory Jane scored another to contribute to the Hurricanes' 10-3 halftime lead.
The match remained in the balance at 13-3 until the 68th minute when, in a moment of brilliant opportunism, Barrett pounced on a loose ball knocked back over the Lions' goalline for the decisive try.
The contest between Barrett and his Lions opposite Elton Jantjies — likely to be renewed when the All Blacks play the Springboks in this season's Rugby Championship — seemed likely to be a key to the match and it was. While Barrett played with the poise that has distinguished his play all season, Jantjies appeared to lose his nerve in the face of the Hurricanes' rush defense.
Jantjies started nervously, sending the first kickoff of the match dead in goal and when the Hurricanes continually rushed up to sever the link to his outside backs and he began to rush his kicks and passing.
Kicking became a vital part of the match because of the cold and slippery conditions and neither side excelled in that area. Jantjies' kicking game was off but the Hurricanes were also less efficient that they needed to be in their kick reception.
Barrett put the Hurricanes ahead with a 10th-minute penalty, then Jane made up for his early misfortune when he snatched out of the air a failed clearing kick from Lionel Mapoe and raced over.
The Lions' only points came from a penalty to Jantjies in the 25th minute. The Hurricanes edged ahead with a Barrett penalty in the 51st minute before the flyhalf capped an outstanding season with the try that won the final.
While the Lions were beaten in their first finals appearance, they were still able to look back on their best-ever Super Rugby season and look forward to further improvement under coach Johan Ackermann.
"It's been a phenomenal season and I'm really proud of every single player," said captain Warren Whiteley, who also played with an injury. "The Hurricanes thoroughly deserved it tonight."