Journeymen key to Highlanders win
Wellington - When the victorious Highlanders signed off the final Super Rugby season with a rags-to-riches story, they underscored the lesson that championships must be earned not bought.
Two years after buying a raft of All Blacks and finishing second to last, the Highlanders on Saturday fielded a team of mainly journeymen and won their first Super Rugby title with a 21-14 victory over the Hurricanes.
They attributed their upset win in part to a controversial clause in the conference system which forced them into the play-offs as the fourth best team, despite finishing second on points to the Hurricanes in the regular season.
"We're over the moon with the result," said coach Jamie Joseph who has ensured his "brotherhood", as they call themselves, will not be under-rated when the competition evolves into Super 18 next year.
"After the last two weeks, when we had to play the Chiefs and the Waratahs we felt we had a good preparation coming into the match," said Joseph.
"We knew it was going to be a tough battle, like it was, and we just felt that the fact we've had two hard games might have been a point of difference."
The Hurricanes, with an All Blacks-stacked backline, had home advantage and the benefit of a week off between the regular season and semi-finals which saw them installed as favourites.
"The best thing about it was that no one believed," Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith said as the unheralded southerners celebrated proving the doubters wrong.
Assistant coach Tony Brown, who played for the Highlanders when they lost their only other final appearance in 1999, said the end result was no surprise to the team.
"Everyone believed that we could do it and everyone put in the work. It was nine months of hard work that paid off and now we're going to enjoy the spoils."
The Highlanders led all the way, held a 13-5 advantage at half-time, and outscored the Hurricanes two tries to one.
It ended a 20-year wait to become the fourth New Zealand side to win the Super crown and completed a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the southernmost club in the southern hemisphere championship.
Two years ago, the move to buy in a raft of All Blacks - including Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Hosea Gear and Brad Thorn - backfired when they won only three games.
Joseph then turned his focus on players unable to get regular time with other franchises but who wanted to be part of Super rugby and were keen on the Highlanders culture. The results were immediate.
With only three All Blacks in their ranks, the Highlanders finished sixth last year and took the championship this year.
The Hurricanes are now the only New Zealand side not to have won a Super title and coach Chris Boyd described Saturday's defeat as "a massive waste of an opportunity".
Conrad Smith, one of several long-serving All Blacks playing their last game for the Hurricanes, believed his side deserved better but was not totally despondent.
"I try to keep a perspective on things," the Hurricanes captain said.
"I'll be trying to keep telling the guys to lift their heads because there's a lot to be proud of. It's a game of footy we lost. I don't think it's a ruined season."