Super Rugby Final preview: Hurricanes and Lions set to battle for maiden title

The Hurricanes and Lions will do battle in Wellington on Saturday for the right to be 2016 Super Rugby champions

Super Rugby Final preview: Hurricanes and Lions set to battle for maiden title
Captains Warren Whiteley and Dane Coles pose with the trophy ahead of Saturday's final (image via: skysports)

The Hurricanes and Lions will do battle on Saturday in Wellington to earn the right to be crowned 2016 Super Rugby champions. 

The top-two in the regular season standings have really impressed over the last fortnight during the playoffs, with the Hurricanes scoring big home wins over the Sharks and Chiefs, while the Lions saw off Kiwi duo the Crusaders and Highlanders in Johannesburg

Neither side has ever won the Super Rugby title, with the 'Canes hoping to complete the Kiwi set of five different champions, while the Lions would become just the second South African outfit after the Bulls to rule the southern hemisphere. 

Hurricanes overcome early struggles before surging to back-to-back finals behind Barrett magic

This season for the Hurricanes has been a roller-coaster ride, which started with the likes of Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Jeremy Thrush leaving for Europe at the end of last season. 

A defeat in last season's final, coupled with the loss of experienced players saw them come under the microscope during the off-season, where they agreed to take part in a TV series called 'Preseason with the Hurricanes'.

They were derided in some areas of the media for opening their doors to the cameras and took even more stick following their week one 52-10 defeat to the Brumbies, where Australian commentator Phil Kearns claimed that the Kiwi's, and Juilan Savea in particular looked 'overweight'.

Nehe Milner-Skudder is tackled during the Hurricanes 52-10 loss to the Brumbies (image via: superxv.com)

The week one embarrassment was followed by a repeat of 2015's final defeat at the hands of the Highlanders before they started to find some form, reeling off six wins on the bounce with their streak ended by a one-point home loss to the Chiefs. 

In what looks like a good omen for Saturday's final, the Hurricanes handed out a 50-17 whopping to the Lions in Johannesburg, with wingers Savea and Cory Jane each crossing for a brace of tries. 

Matt Proctor breaks through against the Lions (image via: superxv.com)

The South African tour then turned nasty, with the 32-15 defeat to the Sharks in Durban followed by news that a number of the leading players had missed a curfew and would be banned for the following week's game. 

That didn't hold them back though, and debutant Wes Goosen's early try settled the nerves in a 29-14 victory over the Reds which got them back on track. 

Following a bye-week, the Hurricanes finaly got revenge on the Highlanders, beating them 27-20 in Wellington thanks to a last-minute try by the outstanding Ardie Savea, who was one of a number of players to join up with the All Blacks during the international break. 

During the month of July, the Hurricanes brass will have watched on with glee as Beauden Barrett claimed 'man of the series' in New Zealand's 3-0 series victory over Wales. 

The fly-half then bought that form back with him into Super Rugby, and has been crucial to their brilliant form ever since. A 37-27 win at home to the Blues was followed up by a 28-17 victory away to the Waratahs which confirmed their place in the playoffs. 

Beauden Barrett has been key to the Hurricanes reurgence (image via: smh.com.au)

Then, in the final round of fixtures with the Kiwi sides battling for position in the overall standings, the Hurricanes travelled to Christchurch and embarrassed the Crusaders in a 35-10 triumph. The win saw them claim top spot in the Kiwi conference, and results elsewhere meant they finished top of the overall log, which afforded them home advantage throughout the playoffs. 

A stunning performance in the quarter-final saw them dispatch of the Sharks in a 41-0 drubbing, which was followed last weekend by an impressive 25-9 win over the Chiefs, again coming behind a standout performance from Barrett and his half-back partner TJ Perenara who will be crucial to the outcome of Saturday's final.

Lions buck South African trend to book final spot

Since being relegated from Super Rugby back in 2013, the turnaround from the Lions franchise is rather incredible.

Now the envy of the other South African franchises, new Springbok coach Alistair Coetzee had no choice but to fill his squad with Lions in the recent series victory over Ireland

The difference in performance from 2013 and 2016 is stark, and much of that is down to the leadership of coach Johan Ackermann, and influential skipper Warren Whiteley

A Currie Cup victory in 2015 gave them the confidence boost they needed, and they are now one game away from the most remarkable of turnarounds. 

The Lions celebrate going unbeaten in their 2015 Currie Cup victory (image via: enca.com)

They started the season on the road, and made history in week one when they became the first side to face new Japanese franchise the Sunwolves, who they beat 26-13, before really laying down an early marker in week 2 when they toppled the Chiefs 36-32 in Hamilton

Defeat to 2015 champions the Highlanders followed under the roof at Forsyth Barr, before they returned home to see off the Cheetahs 39-22 in the first of their South African derbies. 

A 43-37 home defeat to the Crusaders was soon forgotten after they beat fellow South African trio the Sharks, Stormers and Kings in consecutive weeks, before another pummeling at home to the Hurricanes took place, this time to tune of a 50-17 scoreline.

A change in the backline since that defeat saw the powerful Rohan Janse van Rensburg come in for Howard Mnisi at inside centre, and since then the Lions haven't looked back. 

Rohan Janse van Rensburg's emergence at inside centre has helped the Lions tick (image via: sarugbymag.co.za)

Over the space of five weeks, the Lions attacking game came to life, as they put 43 points on the Blues, 52 on the Jaguares and then 56 on the Bulls up at Loftus Versfeld in a real changing of the guard moment for South African rugby. 

Four first-half tries saw them dominate the Sharks in a 37-10 victory, before they completed their winning season against South African franchises with a 57-21 mauling of the Kings. 

In the final gameweek, with top spot on the line, Ackermann made the gutsiest call in his coaching career and rested all of his starters for the trip to Buneos Aries. The move backfired, with the second team losing 34-22 to a pumped-up Jaguares side, meaning the Lions relinquished top spot, and home advantage to the Hurricanes in the playoffs which may come back to haunt them. 

In terms of rest though, the move has worked wonders and really showed during the two playoff victories which qualified them for Saturday's finale. A 42-25 win over the Crusaders was followed by a 42-30 victory over the Highlanders which booked them their spot in their first ever Super Rugby grand final, putting them on the cusp of history. 

How the teams lineup:

Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 1 Loni Uhila, 2 Dane Coles (c)/Ricky Riccitelli, 3 Ben May, 4 Vaea Fifita, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 6 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 8 Victor Vito. Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli/Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga/Reggie Goodes, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins/Tony Lambourn, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea.

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 1 Dylan Smith, 2 Malcolm Marx, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 4 Andries Ferreira, 5 Franco Mostert, 6 Jaco Kriel, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 8 Warren Whiteley (c). Replacements: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Ruan Ackermann, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt.