The Hurricanes deserved to win the 2016 Super Rugby tournament. The Wellington-based franchise finished the conference stage at the top of the overall standings. They went on to beat the Sharks 41-0 in the quarterfinal, the Chiefs 25-9 in the semifinal and the Lions 20-3 in the final.
It may be difficult for some, SA fans in particular, to accept that the Hurricanes were a class apart in the playoff series. Indeed, in the wake of that final in Wellington, quite a number have vented their frustrations on social media.
Many have wondered what may have been had Lions coach Johan Ackermann selected a full-strength side for the last game of the regular season against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. Had the Lions won that game, they would have finished at the top of the overall standings and thus earned the right to host a potential final.
As it was, the Lions finished second on the log, and were forced to travel 12,000km for the decider in the New Zealand capital.
And yet, having witnessed the match at the Cake Tin, as the Wellington stadium is known, one has to say the Hurricanes played the smarter and more effective brand of rugby and deserved to win the title. While travel fatigue was a factor, it was not the primary reason why the Lions lost.
The Johannesburg-based side were out-muscled and out-smarted by a team that adjusted their tactics to suit the conditions as well as the occasion.
The win marked the Hurricanes’ first title success since the tournament’s inception in 1996. It was a big moment for New Zealand rugby, as all five of the Kiwi franchises have now won the trophy. In fact, New Zealand rugby has now claimed 14 of the 21 titles on offer. That record speaks volumes for the country’s domination of the competition, and its standing in world rugby.
While the Lions fell at the final hurdle, they can be proud of their achievements this season. Three years ago, they were in the Super Rugby wilderness and on the brink of financial ruin. After returning to the tournament in 2014, Ackermann’s charges progressed rapidly. This year the Lions broke a series of franchise records and appeared in the playoffs for the first time. During the conference stage, they scored more tries than any other side. Even the New Zealanders were in awe of the Lions’ brand of rugby.
Compare that to the dour, ultimately ineffective rugby served up by other SA franchises. The Bulls, one of the heavyweights of SA rugby, were the biggest disappointment in that they failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Cheetahs continued to underwhelm with their naive performances, while the Southern Kings embarrassed with their two-from-15 win record and their 684 points conceded.
The Sharks qualified for the playoffs, but were hammered by the Hurricanes in New Zealand. The Stormers hosted a quarterfinal at Newlands, but were thrashed by a Chiefs side that were playing a long way from home. The Cape franchise’s rotten run in knockout matches continues. They’ve lost seven out of eight playoffs, and five out of six of those at Newlands.
The focus will now shift to the Springboks and the Rugby Championship. Coach Allister Coetzee hopes to harness the attacking strengths of the Lions in the coming campaign while still maintaining SA’s traditional physical strengths. Coetzee has selected a squad that lacks experience, though. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see New Zealand adding another title to their trophy cabinet in the coming months.