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Super Rugby trophyFollowing a massive street parade on Monday the Highlanders will take the Super Rugby Trophy to their support base over the next few weeks.

In conjunction with their community partner PlaceMakers the trophy, which weighs and impressive 28kg, will be taken to various centres throughout the Highlanders’ region to provide photo opportunities for the fans.

Highlanders’ general manager Roger Clark said, “At the game on Saturday and at the parade on Monday, so many people, young and old, wanted photos with the cup and it just wasn’t possible to give everyone an opportunity.

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Super RugbyIt is the Final of Super Rugby 2015 this weekend.

The long awaited game to determine the champions of 2015 is finally upon us!

Of course, the South African and Australian Franchises are already done and dusted and only 2 New Zealand sides remain in the race, the all season Log leading Hurricanes and the New Zealand Cinderella side, the Highlanders.

The Final takes place in Wellington, New Zealand at 09:35 SA Time (19:35 NZ Time, 17:35 AEST, 07:35 GMT), at Westpac Stadium.

The Hurricanes are firm favourites for the game, having had by far the best overall performance of all 15 Super Rugby franchises in Super Rugby 2015, and running away with the Combined Log. They certainly played entertaining rugby and a lot of it has to be attributed to their forwards finally stepping up to the plate to match their tremendous backline.

Their defensive structures were much improved and their dangerous backline fired.. if one did not know any better one would swear that every last player was on some serious performance enhancing drugs.

I’ve always said that the Hurricanes were always underperforming in relation to the team they have on paper, but in 2015 all the elements finally came together to make them a fabulous side.

Whatever happens in the final, they deserve plaudits for the season of 2015!

The Highlanders on the other side, turned a lot of seemingly no-name forwards into a monster pack and their backline players turned into a dangerous unit with All Blacks written all over every member.

The Highlanders have lost twice to the Hurricanes already in 2015 but last weekend in the semi-final against the Waratahs they showed that they have progressed upwards a number of rungs in the 2015 season and specifically in the last few weekends.

The Highlanders, having almost always been considered New zealand’s step-child Super Rugby side, have had a real Cinderella season and deserve to be in the final and one is almost unwillingly tempted to urge them on for all the honours in the Final.

As a totally neutral observer, all I can say is that I enjoyed the rugby these two teams dished up for us all in 2015… and may the best team win!

Let the Final roll on… no guts, no glory!

Enjoy it with me, folks.

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Super Rugby finalists' NAME PLATES, which one will be engraved?

Super Rugby finalists’ NAME PLATES, which one will be engraved?

 

After 124 games spread across 18 Rounds and a fortnight of finals, we stand at the cusp of crowning a 1st-time Super Rugby champion.

We run the rule over both teams – examine their strengths, potntial weaknesses and try to decipher where the game will be won.

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HurricanesChris Boyd has announced his side to battle the Highlanders for the Super Rugby title but is still sweating on Ardie Savea who is yet to prove his fitness.

Meanwhile, Saturday night’s finale will quietly take on an extra meaning for a few of the men in black and yellow.

For long-serving Hurricanes Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Jeremy Thrush, and fellow teammates Chris Smylie, Rey Lee-Lo and Ben Franks, it will be the last time they run onto Westpac Stadium as Hurricanes.

With 468 caps between them, the 6 players will leave a sizeable hole at the Hurricanes when they depart at the end of the season, but not before they do their best to help lift a Super Rugby trophy for their club.

Boyd has named a similar line-up to help those 6 guys do the job, with the only change coming at reserve hooker where Motu Matu’u returns from a knee injury.

Savea’s knee will continue to be monitored throughout the remainder of the week, with Callum Gibbins bracketed as cover should Savea not be deemed fit.

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HighlandersThe Highlanders will line up with an unchanged side for the Super Rugby Final against the Hurricanes in Wellington.

Head coach Jamie Joseph has chosen to stick with the same 15 that knocked off the defending champion Waratahs in Sydney a week ago.

On Saturday Elliot Dixon will make his 50th Super Rugby appearance for the Highlanders, while co-captains Ben Smith and Nasi Manu will once more lead the side.

The only change to the squad comes on the bench, where Marty Banks replaces Trent Renata, while Joseph has stuck with 6 forwards on the bench.

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Chris Boyd

Chris Boyd

Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd said he is taking nothing from his team’s 2 wins over the Highlanders this season ahead of their Final with same opponents on Saturday.

The Hurricanes won their Round 6 encounter 20 / 13 in Dunedin and then in dominant fashion thrashed the Highlanders side 56 / 20 in the return fixture in Round 17 in Napier. However, the latter win was against a considerably weaker Highlanders outfit than the one that they will be facing this Saturday.

“If you remember the last game in Napier they rested their 3 All Blacks (Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa),” Boyd said.

“Patrick Osborne and Nasi Manu also did not play. It was 5 key players for them – so we will take absolutely no energy from that performance at all.”

Conditions for Saturday’s Final is expected to be wet, which might nullify the attacking threats of both teams who are the competition’s leading try scorers. Boyd, on the other hand, feels that there will be running rugby regardless of the conditions.

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HighlandersHighlanders co-captain Nasi Manu said that his side are happy to be written off ahead of the Super Rugby Final against the Hurricanes.

Despite having just 3 All Blacks in their side the Highlanders upset the defending champion Waratahs in their Sydney semi-final on Saturday, and Manu said they relish being underdogs.

“It just added fuel to the fire, coming over here and everyone writing us off,” Manu said. “No-one really expected anything from us. I guess we have always been the underdogs and I believe we thrive off that.”

The Highlanders will be up against the weight of history as well in Wellington, as since the conference system was implemented in 2011 no team that finished outside the Top-2 places on the competition ladder has won.

The Brumbies, Sharks and Crusaders have all made it all the way to the final, only to stumble at the final hurdle.

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Lima Sopoaga

Lima Sopoaga

The Highlanders have received a boost with the news that flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, who suffered a knee injury at a training camp, is set to take his place in their Super Rugby semi-final against the Waratahs.

“He’s fine. He just twisted his knee, it’s a wee bit of a one off,” coach Jamie Joseph said in Sydney on Friday. “It was a wee bit of a scare for everybody, but he’s fine and he’s going to train today.”

The 24-year-old, who has also been named in an extended All Blacks squad, had initially feared he might have to sit out Saturday’s match against the defending champions.

“I think his body feels fine today and, as Jamie said, it was just a bit of a scare at the time,” added Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith.

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Super RugbyIt is the Semi-Final Round of Super Rugby 2015 this weekend.

There are only 2 matches in the Round, 1 in New Zealand and 1 in Australia.

1St Place on the Combined Log, the Hurricanes hosts the lowest Qualifier, the Brumbies. In the other match 2nd on the Log, the Waratahs hosts the other qualifier from last weekend, the Highlanders.

The 2 Franchises who finished in the No 1 and No 2 spots on the Combined Log, the Hurricanes and Waratahs respectively, have had wonderful rest weekends, as they sat out during the Top 6 Qualification Round last weekend.

The action is kicked off by the Hurricanes vs Brumbies who do battle in Wellington at 09:35 SA Time (19:35 NZ Time, 17:35 AEST, 07:35 GMT) on Saturday 27 June.

A little later, over in Sydney, Australia, the Waratahs plays the Highlanders at 11:55 SA Time (19:55 AEST, 21:55 NZ Time, 09:55 GMT).

After this Round only 2 Teams remain to contest the Final next weekend.

The Hurricanes vs Brumbies game should be an absolute cracker after the Brumbies’ massive win over the DHL Stormers last weekend, but one would have to give a nod to the most consistent team of this year’s series, the Hurricanes, who have stood out head and shoulders above all comers in 2015.

Both teams sport great backlines but I am of the opinion that the Hurricanes are punching at the weight they should always punch at in 2015, and I give the win to them, but not by a large margin.

As far as the other match is concerned, do we give home ground advantage enough weight to speculate that the Waratahs will overcome the staunch Highlanders in Sydney… even though their regular league season was not as brilliant as last season, OR do we say that the Highlander’s faerie tale will continue in 2015?

It is a difficult call to make and I’m leaning towards the Waratahs making it at home in Sydney!

Meanwhile 11Teams are already lounging around, no longer part of the race to the finish line.

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HighlandersSaturday’s Semi-Final will see the Highlanders’ field an almost identical starting 15 to the side that beat the Chiefs last Saturday in an encounter of epic proportions.

The only change – openside flanker James Lentjes replaces the injured Dan Pryor. Lentjes was called up for injuries earlier in the season and has showed a lot of promise in his 4 games to date.

The team also welcomes back experienced lock Joe Wheeler from a lengthy injury break to take his place on the bench alongside Trent Renata.

Renata replaces the versatile Marty Banks who took a head knock during the week and while working through the concussion protocols is unavailable for action this week.

The team will again be captained by the experienced duo of Ben Smith and Nasi Manu who will be playing their 104th and 80th game respectively.

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Dan Pryor

Dan Pryor

Dan Pryor’s Super Rugby season is likely over after the versatile forward suffered a dislocated elbow in his side’s Qualifier triumph over the Chiefs.

Pryor came from the field in the 61st minute and the Highlanders confirmed via social media on Sunday morning that the 27-year-old had suffered the injury.

Head coach Jamie Joseph confirmed that Pryor will definitely miss next week’s Semi-Final against the Waratahs.

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Super RugbyIt is the Top 6 Qualifying Round of Super Rugby 2015 this weekend.

There are only 2 matches in the Round, 1 in New Zealand and 1 in South Africa.

3rd Placed on the Combined Log, the DHL Stormers (albeit 3rd only by reason of the Conference Syystem), hosts 6th on the Log, the Brumbies. In the other match 4th on the Log, the Highlanders, hosts 5th on the Log, the Chiefs.

The 2 Franchises who finished in the No1 and No 2 spots on the Combined Log, the Hurricanes and Waratahs respectively, have lovely rest weekends, as they only meet the winners of this Round’s matches next weekend in the Semi-Finals.

The action is kicked off by the Highlanders vs Chiefs who do battle in Dunedin at 09:35 SA Time (19:35 NZ Time, 17:35 AEST, 07:35 GMT)

Much later in the day, in Cape Town, South Africa, the DHL Stormers host the Brumbies at 17:05 SA Time (15:05 GMT, Sunday 01:05 AEST, Sunday 03:05 NZ Time).

After this Round of Top 6 Qualifying matches, only 4 teams will remain and there will be 2 Semi-Final matches next weekend, followed by a Final match for the ultimate winner a week later.

The Highlanders vs Chiefs game should be an absolute cracker, with both teams getting some injured players back into the fold. It is extremely difficult to pick a winner for this game and the different pundits differ on the winner of the match, with probable the bigger percentage backing the Chiefs for an away win. I differ from that though, and I think if there is ONE YEAR where the Highlanders could make it to the Semi-Finals, it is this year, at home, at Forsyth Barr stadium.

Both teams sport great backlines but I am of the opinion that the Highlanders might have a slightly more abrasive forwards pack and possibly also a better scrumhalf and flyhalf, both of whom have come on in leaps and bounds in 2015, namely Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga.

I predict the Highlanders to squeek a win, in a very entertaining match.

As far as the other match is concerned, do we give home ground advantage enough weight to speculate that the DHL Stormers will overcome the Brumbies in Cape Town… even though their regular league game was only a 21 / 20 win for the Stormers and with Christian Lealiifano missing an absolute peach of a conversion attempt, from right in front, OR do we say that the Brumbies will win the game in the absense of Duane Vermeulen and likely also Schalk Burger, both with some injury concerns?

The South African scribes and pundits all patriotically pick the Stormers for a win, but I am hesitant to do so and think this game’s result is a perfect 50 / 50 guess, so may the best team take it!

Meanwhile 9 Teams are already lounging around, no longer part of the race to the finish line.

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HighlandersHighlanders head coach Jamie Joseph welcomes back Malakai Fekitoa and 2 key forwards and Saturday’s Qualifier against the Chiefs in Dunedin.

Co-captain Nasi Manu and the experienced Mark Reddish make a timely return from injury to bolster the Highlanders pack.

The versatile Dan Pryor, who has played in all 3 back-row positions this season, moves to openside flank to replace the injured John Hardie. In the front row, Daniel Lienert-Brown makes way for Brendon Edmonds.

Fekitoa, who has been under an injury cloud over the last few weeks, has been named to start at centre, re-uniting with the explosive back 3 of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne.

The game will be played in front of a capacity crowd under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium in what will be Dunedin’s first Super Rugby Finals Series match since 1999.

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Malakai Fekitoa

Malakai Fekitoa

All Black centre Malakai Fekitoa heads the list of key players set to return for the Highlanders’ Super Rugby preliminary play-off match against the Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday.

Fekitoa missed last Friday’s victory over the Blues because of an injured groin, but coach Jamie Joseph is positive that 1 of his star backs will be fit for the encounter with the 2-time champion Chiefs.

The team received further boosts as they started training for their 1st home play-off match in 16 years.

3 Key forwards – No 8 Nasi Manu (shoulder), as well as locks Mark Reddish (broken hand) and Joe Wheeler (knee) – could be back for this week’s encounter.

Flank John Hardie looks to be the biggest injury concern for the Highlanders as they get into play-off mode.

Hardie, who damaged rib cartilage in the early stages of the match against the Blues at the weekend, could be in doubt.

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Tom Franklin

Tom Franklin

Alex Ainley

Alex Ainley

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph is facing some serious selection posers in the wake of his team’s humiliation at the hands of Super Rugby’s runaway leaders, the Hurricanes.

As if shipping more than 50 points were not enough, he has lost 2 more locks and now have a serious 2nd row crisis.

Tom Franklin and Alex Ainley became the latest additions to the 2nd row injury list – which also includes Joe Wheeler (knee) and Mark Reddish (hand).

It means Joseph is down to some utility forwards, rather than specialist locks, ahead of the Final Round of league action – when they face the Blues in Auckland on Friday.

Joseph – who rested the star All Black trio of Ben and Aaron Smith, as well as Malakai Fekitoa – started the match against the Hurricanes with a host of players on the injury list.

Apart from the locks, Shane Christie (hamstring), Hayden Parker (shoulder), Kane Hames (knee), Nasi Manu (shoulder), Patrick Osborne (calf) and Josh Renton (hamstring) were unavailable.

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HighlandersThe Highlanders picked apart a poor Chiefs side with a convincing 36 / 9 victory down at Rugby Park, Invercargill, in Southland.

Tries from in-form wingers Patrick Osborne and Waisake Naholo either side of halftime and late efforts from Richard Buckman and Ben Smith ensured they took away maximum points, as Lima Sopoaga punished the Chiefs with the boot.

Victory means the Highlanders strengthen their position in the wildcard spots for now with a 10th win of the season, a franchise Super Rugby record.

They were once again inspired by a moment of magic from Naholo, whose future now seems set to be in New Zealand rather than with Clermont in France. His 9th try of the season moves him within 1 of Jeff Wilson’s Highlanders record of 10 in a campaign.

For maybe the 1st time this season the number of Chiefs absentees through injury really shone through, with no Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam, Aaron Cruden, Sonny Bill Williams or James Lowe to call upon.

There were simply too many errors from the Chiefs for them to be truly competitive with a high number of missed tackles and handling errors.

This was accentuated by the aggression from the Highlanders at the breakdown, as they constantly forced errors out of their opponents.

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HighlandersChiefsHighlanders (11) 36 / 9 (3) Chiefs

The Highlanders and Chiefs did battle in Super Rugby at

Rugby Park, Invercargill at 09:35 SA Time (19:35 NZ Time, 07:35 GMT).

This was the live match discussion Article.

The match was broadcast LIVE on SuperSport 1 & CSN on TV in SA.

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Western ForceRedsForce (10) 10 / 32 (18) Reds

The Western Force and Reds did battle in Super Rugby at

nib Stadium, Perth at 11:40 SA Time (17:40 AWST, 19:40 AEST, 07:35 GMT).

This was the live match discussion Article.

The match was broadcast LIVE on SuperSport 1 & CSN on TV in SA.

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HighlandersThe Highlanders are preparing for a forward onslaught against the Toyota Cheetahs as they name a 6 – 2 split on the bench for the clash in Bloemfontein.

The Highlanders ran out of steam against the Lions last weekend, resulting in a late surge from Johan Ackerman’s team to steal the win. This has resulted in Highlanders head coach Jamie Joseph naming 6 forwards on his bench, ensuring he has plenty of firepower to see through the full 80 minutes.

There are 2 players making their Super Rugby debut in the team named to face the Cheetahs. The debutants are Tasman lock Alex Ainley who comes into the side for Tom Franklin, and Hawkes Bay wing Ryan Tongia who replaces the injured Waisake Naholo.

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Waisake Naholo

Waisake Naholo

Despite signing a contract to join Clermont next season, New Zealand Rugby is reportedly hopeful of retaining Super Rugby’s top try-scorer, Waisake Naholo.

Quotes attributed to the club’s Sporting Director, Jean-Marc Lhermet, suggest the move is not a foregone conclusion given the form of the Highlanders’ winger, who has a competition-leading 8 tries in his 11 appearances.

“As it stands we have a contract of 2 years with an option that has been signed by the player,” Lhermet told La Montagne – a newspaper based in Clermont.

“It’s true that his agent reassured us initially when there were noises about the NZRU wanting to keep him. Now, his performances in Super Rugby are remarkable and we are under an increasing amount of pressure from the NZRU. And when the All Black machine gets going, it becomes complicated.

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Lima Sopoaga

Lima Sopoaga

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph believes Lima Sopoaga must continue his rich vein of Super Rugby form backed up with a strong finish to the season to force himself into contention for the All Blacks.

One can argue that Sopoaga has been the most consistent New Zealand flyhalf with his improved confidence and game management.

Colin Slade has been in silky form for the Crusaders, but he crossing hemispheres after the World Cup and so is Dan Carter.

Chiefs playmaker Aaron Cruden will almost certainly miss the World Cup with a serious knee injury and Hurricane Beauden Barrett will be out for 4 weeks.

Barrett’s scans revealed a grade 2 tear of his medial collateral ligament (MCL) which he suffered during the Hurricanes’ match against the Crusaders last Saturday.

The uncapped Sopoaga, if he maintains his form, must be next in line.

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Super RugbyThe Vodacom Bulls are back at the Top of the South African Conference, taking over from the DHL Stormers who came up short in Bloemfontein on an exhilarating Saturday of Vodacom Super Rugby.

The weekend started on a disappointing note for the Cell C Sharks in Dunedin though. After a solid start for the visitors, the Highlanders turned on the heat and eventually beat the Durbanites by 48 / 15 in their opening tour match Down Under.

Saturday saw 2 cracking local derbies, both won by the home teams.

1st Up, the Toyota Cheetahs caused a minor upset when they won their 3rd successive home game against the DHL Stormers in Bloemfontein, by 25 / 17.

The home team outscored the visitors by 3 tries to 2 and thoroughly deserved their 4th win of the season. It was also only the 3rd time in 14 matches that the DHL Stormers could not score any Log Points against the Toyota Cheetahs.

The final match of the weekend was a proper humdinger in Pretoria, where the Vodacom Bulls beat their neighbours, the Emirates Lions, by 35 / 33. A total of 7 tries were scored as both sides went hammer and tongs against each other for the full 80 minutes.

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Joe Wheeler

Joe Wheeler

The Highlanders have been dealt a blow with the news that 2nd row Joe Wheeler is out for the rest of the season.

The powerful lock has made 8 starts for the Highlanders this season, but had to come off in last week’s defeat to the Brumbies.

Scans have shown he ruptured ligaments during the game, and as a result he faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

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HighlandersThe Highlanders have made wholesale changes to their team to face the Brumbies in Canberra this weekend.

Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith are all rested as part of the agreement with New Zealand Rugby to rest All Blacks ahead of the World Cup, while there are also a number of changes in the pack.

Trent Renata comes in at fullback, with Richard Buckman joining Shaun Treeby in the centres and Fumiaki Tanaka taking over scrumhalf duties.

Up front, meanwhile, Pingi Tala’apitaga and Tom Franklin bolster the tight 5, while Joe Latta and Josh Renton are set to make their Super Rugby debuts off the bench.

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Super RugbyThe DHL Stormers finished their Australasian tour with a 2nd win while the Vodacom Bulls consolidated their position at the Top of the South African Conference as Vodacom Super Rugby 2015 entered the 2nd half of the season.

However, the Toyota Cheetahs and Cell C Sharks both lost at home as the teams from Pretoria and Cape Town opened up a bit of a gap in the local conference and the Vodacom Bulls moved up to 2nd on the overall log.

The DHL Stormers were made to work hard for a scrappy win in Perth on Saturday afternoon as they defeated the struggling Western Force by 13 / 6, the only 5-pointer of the encounter a Penalty Try to the visitors after yet another superb scrum. The win concluded their best Australasian tour in 3 years.

Back home, the Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks delivered a typically hard local derby in Durban with the 3-time champions from Pretoria ultimately winning by 17 / 10, with each team scoring a solitary try.

The Toyota Cheetahs unfortunately could not build on their good win in Perth last weekend when they were beaten by 18 / 17 by the Reds in Bloemfontein.

Down Under, the defending champions – the Waratahs and the Chiefs recorded impressive victories in Wellington and Christchurch respectively.

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Jason Emery

Jason Emery

Tom Franklin

Tom Franklin

Highlanders’ lock, Tom Franklin, and midfielder, Jason Emery, have re-signed with the franchise for a further 2 years, signalling their commitment to the team.

Franklin, who made his debut in 2014, has played 15 games for the Highlanders and has been a regular starter this season.

He has formed a very effective locking partnership with Joe Wheeler and has the physical attributes to do the hard work while possessing the natural ball skills to contribute significantly on attack.

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