Preview: Hurricanes v Lions
SUPER RUGBY FINAL: Super Rugby comes of age in Wellington on Saturday and Jan de Koning looks at the 21st Final of the professional era.
A lot has been said and written about the two teams, the hordes of super stars and game-breakers.
However, the most influential factor may well be Wellington's infamous southeasterly winds.
The locals will call it a 'breeze', but Johan Ackermann and his visiting Lions are taking no chances.
They have scheduled in an unprecedented extra kicking session at the Westpac Stadium - or Cake Tin, as it is affectionately known.
Ackermann, who told his players to make sure the "soak up the atmosphere" and "enjoy the occasion", ensured he gave his kickers every chance of getting used to the swirling winds inside the stadium.
"There is a difference at how the ball travels," Ackermann said in a trans-Indian Ocean teleconference - when asked about the expected conditions.
While the venue where the Lions practiced was open, Ackermann still scheduled an extra session for his kickers inside the match venue.
"That is probably going to be the biggest factor," the coach said about the wind.
"We arranged to send the kickers to the stadium on Thursday and at Friday's captain's run they get another chance. JP Ferreira [defence and kicking coach] went with the kickers and he was satisfied.
"We also have a chance during the warm-up before the game to get used to the conditions.
"However, it is on the day - under pressure - that you have to execute your kicks. That will be the challenge."
Ferreira said he was satisfied with the time his kickers had at the venue, with a pre-match warm-up to iron out any chinks in the armour.
Ferreira said the kickers won't make major adjustments from what they normally do, but judge each kick on its merits.
"At any moment you may find the wind is against you or from behind you," Ferreira said, adding: "That is what the swirling in the stadium does.
"You just have to make the right decisions."
Wing Ruan Combrinck experienced first-hand the sudden changes in conditions - slotting a kick from some 60 metres out and then just a minute later didn't reach the posts.
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said his team has been in play-off mode since May and won't change anything in their approach.
"If we go all the way back to when we lost to the Sharks [on May 8]. I think we've been playing knockout football since then," Boyd told the Dominion Post.
"So we've had six or seven games of knockout football and if we lost one of those games - as you saw with the shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic in that week when we played the Crusaders - if we'd got it wrong the week before or the week before [that] we wouldn't have been in that shuffle.
"So we've been playing knockout football for a long time now and they're getting pretty good at it."
Ackermann, who made his only appearance in a Super Rugby Final when he started for the Sharks (at age 37) in their 19-20 loss to the Bulls in Durban in 2007, said it is very special and hopefully the players will recognise that and enjoy the moment.
"We could feel the excitement in training," Ackermann said, adding: "The guys appeared to have overcome the travel [side-effects] and the energy was back.
"Every player knows what is at stake on Saturday.
"What I see in the team [this week] is the same I saw in the other play-off matches [quarterfinal and semifinal] - there was a calmness."
The coach said they approach it just like any game of rugby.
"The only difference is there is a trophy at the end of the match. If you suddenly want to change things and up the motivational ante, you'll miss the boat."
Players to watch:
For the Hurricanes: Before kick-off the biggest share of the spotlight will be on regular captain Dane Coles, who is in a race against time to recover from the rib cartilage injury he suffered in the quarterfinal and which kept him out of last week's semifinal. Coach Chris Boyd said he is prepared to wait till the very last minute to make a call. Among the confirmed players to start flank Ardie Savea poses arguably the biggest threat to the Lions - with his Sevens pace and freakish strength, not to mention his skill. And the ace up the sleeve could be his brother Julian Savea coming off the bench.
For the Lions: The fact that Lions skipper Warren Whiteley recovered from the calf injury that sidelined him in the semifinal puts him in the same spotlight as Coles, but with the advantage of not having to pass a late fitness test. The accolades often go to players like Jaco Kriel, Francois de Klerk and Elton Jantjies. However, it is workhorses like Warwick Tecklenburg, Franco Mostert, Andries Ferreira and Julian Redelinghuys that could help the Lions hold sway.
Head to head: You can literally go to each of the 15 positions and make a case for it being important. However, the most important backline battles will be in the halfback positions - Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara (Hurricanes) versus Elton Jantjies and Francois de Klerk (Lions). Up front there are just as many - Victor Vito (Hurricanes) against Warren Whiteley (Lions), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) against Warwick Tecklenburg (Lions), Brad Shields (Hurricanes versus Jaco Kriel (Lions) and so on. However, the most crucial contest will be in the scrums - where Ben May, Dane Coles or Ricky Riccitelli and Loni Uhila (Hurricanes) will have their work cut out against Julian Redelinghuys, Malcolm Marx and Dylon Smith (Lions).
Prediction: There could be a new winner this year, meaning that five of the last six Super Rugby seasons will have seen a first-time winners - unless the Lions win, having won the Super 10 in 1993. The Hurricanes have won nine of their 10 encounters with the Lions in Super Rugby, including each of their last seven. In those last seven wins they have beaten the South African side by an average of 15.3 points per game. Not only will the Hurricanes be searching for Grand Final glory, but also an eighth consecutive Super Rugby win, which would set a club record. The Hurricanes are yet to win a Final from two attempts, losing by seven points to the Crusaders in 2006 and by the same margin to the Highlanders in 2015. The Lions won the first Super Rugby title when South Africa were invited back into international rugby, Transvaal (as they were called then) beating an All Black-laden Auckland team 20-17 in 1993. Yes, we refuse to ignore the Super 10, even if it did take place in the amateur era. The Lions are aiming to become only the second South African side to win the title (Bulls in 2007, 2009, 2010) in the professional era. The Lions have won their last three games against New Zealand opposition, scoring in excess of 40 points on each occasion. They've also won on both their excursions to New Zealand the past two seasons. Not since 2012 has a Super Rugby Final been decided by more than the value of a converted try (Chiefs 37-6 Sharks). The Lions (25) and Hurricanes (23) have scored the second and third most tries from possessions originating in their own half respectively this season, only the Crusaders (26) have scored more. This Final pitches the best attack against the best defence, the Lions have averaged a competition high 36.4 points and 4.8 tries per game whilst the Hurricanes have conceded a league low 19 points per game.Ardie Savea won three turnovers in the Hurricanes' semifinal win, more than any other player across the weekend, to take his season tally to 24, the second most of any player, only one behind the Brumbies' David Pocock (25). Savea has also made more tackles than any other player this season (192). The final sees the most prolific kickers in the competition go head to head. Beauden Barrett (71) and Elton Jantjies (70) have kicked more goals than any other players in the competition, though the Lions' shot-taker (74 percent) has been more accurate than his New Zealand counterpart (70 percent). No doubt the conditions, including home ground advantage, favour the Hurricanes. They are certainly fancied by the bookmakers. However, the Lions have come a long way since they conceded 50 points (losing 17-50) to the Hurricanes in Round 10, on April 30. If they win they would have beaten all five New Zealand teams in one season for the first time - having taken revenge against the Crusaders (quarterfinal) and Highlanders (semifinal) - after losing to them in the league stages. We are going to go against the bookmakers and suggest the Lions will break the Hurricanes hearts - but by a single score, try or penalty.
By Jan de Koning
* Stats courtesy of SANZAAR & Opta sport