They boast backlines to envy but the Hurricanes and Highlanders both reckon their less-heralded forward packs hold the key to victory in the Super Rugby final.
Brilliant Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith is fullback for a back division brimming with match-winners, most notably halfback Aaron Smith and dynamic winger Waisake Naholo, who both scored tries in the 35-17 semi-final pasting of the Waratahs in Sydney.
Ben Smith says unleashing their attacking flair will again firstly require the toil of a front eight lacking any All Blacks but who are not short of big-name scalps.
They out-pointed the Waratahs on Saturday and the powerful Chiefs eight in the qualifying final a week earlier, prompting Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph to proclaim they have been under-rated by most teams all year.
The Hurricanes have used the same methodology to win 15 of 17 games this year.
“They are probably similar to us in a lot of ways,” Smith said.
“They’ve got a good forward pack that gives them a lot of go forward and the backs use the ball pretty well off the back of that.
“Obviously they’ve got a pretty dangerous backline … if they can get up a head of steam, they can get behind you and do some damage.”
There was a return-fire of compliments from Hurricanes hooker Dane Coles, who says they won’t fall into the trap of under-estimating the visitors.
He was familiar with the ability of three former Hurricanes forwards who have moved south – lock Mark Reddish, prop Brendon Edmonds and hooker Ash Dixon – who he says appear to typify the Highlanders’ approach.
“When you have guys like that working for each other the whole 80 minutes, you can defeat any pack. They pretty much beat up a Wallabies pack, so we have a huge amount of respect for those guys,” Coles said.
“When you have people who write you off the only way to go about your business is to prove people wrong.”
Coles is one of 12 Hurricanes and five Highlanders players who were named in the All Blacks squad but are unavailable for the Test in Samoa four days after the final.
He says the build-up to their 29-9 semi-final thumping of the Brumbies felt like a Test preparation and he expects something similar this week.