Hurricanes, Lions look for first Super Rugby title
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand's Hurricanes and South Africa's Lions both will target a first Super Rugby title when they meet in next Saturday's final after similar courses through weekend semifinals.
The Hurricanes will host the final in Wellington for the second consecutive year after beating the Hamilton-based Chiefs 25-9 to qualify as the top-ranked team. The Lions beat the Highlanders 42-30 in Johannesburg, ending the title defense of the Dunedin-based team.
It is a second year running that the final will be contested by teams chasing a first title. It will be third final for the Hurricanes and the first for the Lions.
The teams followed similar paths into and through the playoffs. The Lions held first place on the championship table until the final week of the regular season when they were supplanted by the Hurricanes. In finishing first and second, both teams secured home advantage in the quarterfinals and semifinals, and the Hurricanes' first place gave them that advantage in the championship decider.
They finished with matching 11-4 regular season records, both took seven bonus points for winning by margins of three tries or more and both were convincing home winners of quarterfinals between South African and New Zealand teams: the Hurricanes beat the Durban-based Sharks 41-0 and the Lions beat seven-time champions the Crusaders 42-25.
Both faced former champions in their semifinals and again won convincingly. The Lions beat the Highlanders by five tries to four and the Hurricanes beat 2012 and 2013 champions the Chiefs by three tries to nil.
One point of difference is their defensive records in the playoffs. The Lions have conceded seven tries in two matches which the Hurricanes have not conceded a try in their past 2-1/2 games.
Both teams were without their regular captains in the semifinals: the Lions lost backrower Warren Whiteley with a calf injury while the Hurricanes lost hooker Dane Coles with rib damage. Neither is certain to appear in the final.
More significantly, both teams were steered through testing semifinal matches by brilliant performances from their flyhalves; Beauden Barrett and Elton Jantjies both scored tries on Saturday and created others. Jantjies scored 22 points for the Lions and Barrett scored 15, making their matchup next weekend pivotal in deciding which team lifts the trophy for the first time.
Both teams pursue a policy of all-out attack, driven by partnerships in halves between Barrett and T.J. Perenara for the Hurricanes and Jantjies and Faf De Klerk for the Lions. They have outstanding finishers among the backs and dangerous ball carriers among the forwards.
Among the main factors that may influence the outcome of the final are the Hurricanes' home advantage and the toll of travel on the Lions, who are often not at their best away from home.
Barrett created the opening try for Willis Halaholo, reclaiming his own kick behind the Chiefs' defense then making a long arcing run to link with Halaholo on the right wing. Victor Vito detached from a scrum to score in the 48th minute and the Hurricanes continued to hold out the Chiefs, even when down to 14 men between the 62nd and 72nd minutes.
"We won the first half because of that period of defense," said head coach Chris Boyd, who has led the Hurricanes to the final in his first two seasons in charge.
While the odds may be against a Lions victory, they have already achieved so much this season with little expectation. They have been transformed under the coaching of Johan Ackermann, posting their best-ever regular-season record.
The Lions were the first team to be relegated from Super Rugby four years ago, but Ackermann has guided their steady improvement, leading them to 12th in his first year, to eighth in his second and now to a historic reckoning on Saturday.
Keenly focused and refusing to be swayed by any hype, Ackermann said: "We'll give it our best shot. There's no more I can ask of the guys."