NZ gears up for 'brutal' Super 15 final
Wellington - The Hurricanes-Highlanders Super 15 final on Saturday "is going to be brutal" and could damage New Zealand's World Cup strength, according to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
But he admits he wouldn't have it any other way with southern hemisphere club rugby supremacy at stake.
The Hurricanes, with 12 current All Blacks in their squad, compared to five with the Highlanders, have been installed as favourites by the pragmatists for the sold-out game in Wellington.
Rugby romantics, however, are backing the Highlanders who field a band of rugby nobodies with a never-say-die attitude.
In what will be an emotional encounter - neither side has previously won the title - several senior players, including Hurricanes figureheads Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu, will be playing their last Super Rugby match.
"It's going to be a real brutal game," said Hansen, whose finals' experience as assistant coach of the champion Canterbury Crusaders in 2000 fuels his trepidation about the risk of injury to key All Blacks ahead of the World Cup beginning in September.
"Whilst I'm excited about it being two New Zealand teams, there is a little bit of holding your breath because you don't want any of those young men to get injured - or anyone for that matter - but not the 17 because they are earmarked to come in and play some of these Test matches that we've got to play before we go to the World Cup.
"But watching the two teams play, it's going to be brutal.
"There's no way you can expect anyone to hold back. You can't. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for both teams. The emotion of it will play a big part."
The last two teams standing were the best-performing attacking sides in the regular season with the Hurricanes heading the try-scoring list with 62, one more than the Highlanders.
But championships are often won on defence where the 'Canes were second best to the Brumbies side in the regular season, but the Highlanders had the worst defensive record of the top six qualifiers.
The Highlanders have since conceded only three tries as they outsmarted Chiefs and Waratahs in the playoffs.
Defence coach Scott McLeod said they had a "big day" on Tuesday working on a strategy to counter the Hurricanes.
"They've got threats across the park. You give them too much space and they will make the most of that with their running, offloading and continuity play. So we need to be able to shut that all down," said McLeod.