The Highlanders have produced heist after heist all season but unleashed Super Rugby’s version of daylight robbery against the Hurricanes to claim a maiden title.
The little-fancied southerners upset the top-qualifying hosts 21-14 in a dramatic final in Wellington on Saturday, silencing an expectant crowd of 36,000 at Westpac Stadium.
Victory is just the fourth for visiting finalists in the 20-year history of Super Rugby and only the second time a team qualifying outside the top two has lifted the silverware.
Tries either side of halftime to flanker Elliot Dixon and winger Waisake Naholo proved the difference, along with defiant defence over the last half-hour as the Hurricanes threw everything into the pursuit of their first crown.
They couldn’t crack the visitors, who had proved the odds and the pundits wrong all season.
They were firm outsiders to beat the top-qualifying Hurricanes, who had only lost two games all year.
However, as they did in last week’s semi-final upset of the NSW Waratahs, the Highlanders kicked cleverly, defended robustly and counter-attacked with intent.
Their no-name forward pack again out-pointed higher-rated opposites, while halves Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga completed superb seasons with controlling performances.
Competition-leading point-scorer Sopoaga eclipsed All Blacks opposite Beauden Barrett in general play and goalkicking. He landed three from three as the Highlanders took a 13-5 lead into halftime, while Barrett missed his first three attempts.
Sopoaga landed penalties in the fifth and 29th minutes and Barrett was astray with his first two attempts.
He also missed the conversion of Ma’a Nonu’s try after the inside centre crossed in the left corner from a blindside play.
That left the Hurricanes trailing 5-6 before the most-contentious moment of the game a minute before halftime.
Dixon charged 15 metres and grounded the ball on the foot of Hurricanes fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder when he reached out to score.
Dixon appeared to lose the ball forward and reacted in disappointed fashion, but television match official Ben Skeen ruled the ball had also found grass.
Barrett was finally on target with a penalty soon after the break but the visitors pulled clear 18-8 when wing Naholo scored his competition-leading 13th try of the year.
Two Barrett penalties reduced the margin to four points.
It should have been better but unmarked winger Julian Savea spilled a pass he should have held five metres out from the line which ultimately proved decisive.
Highlanders replacement Marty Banks landed a late drop goal to round out the scoring.
The result was a triumphant way to farewell Edinburgh-bound Highlanders co-captain Nasi Manu.
However, six Hurricanes leave on a losing note, including their iconic midfield pairing of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, who will play next year in France.