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All Blacks hopefuls out to impress in highly-anticipated Super Rugby decider
An enthralling encounter awaits at ‘The Cake Tin’ tomorrow.

A THRILLING GAME lies in store tomorrow as the Hurricanes meet the Highlanders in the Super Rugby final at Westpac Stadium [KO 08.35 Irish time].

Neither of the New Zealand franchises has won a Super Rugby title before, adding another element of intrigue to a contest that pits two of the greatest attacking club teams in the world against each other.

All Black hopefuls

The likes of Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Aaron Smith are established All Blacks, but this final game of the Super Rugby season is the latest chance for the next tier to show Steve Hansen how much they offer.

Lima Sopoaga Photosport / Dianne Manson/INPHO Sopoaga has had a brilliant season. Photosport / Dianne Manson/INPHO / Dianne Manson/INPHO

The Highlanders Waisake Naholo has been sublime on the wing all season, earning a place in the Kiwis’ 41-man squad alongside out-half Lima Sopoaga. Centre Malakai Fekitoa already has eight caps, but now has the chance to upstage Smith at 13.

On the Hurricanes side, new All Blacks squad members James Broadhurst and Nehe Milner-Skudder have an opportunity to add to the exceptional impressions they have made in 2015.

From those who are already internationals – such as TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Dane Coles and Jeremy Thrush – Hansen will be watching out for signs of their growing maturity and leadership.

Plumtree’s defence vs. Brown’s attack

John Plumtree may have spent less than a year with the Ireland set-up but he won the respect of the likes of Paul O’Connell in that time. Having returned to New Zealand to take up an assistant coaching role at the Hurricanes, his reputation has only grown.

Brian O'Driscoll and John Plumtree James Crombie / INPHO Plumtree with Brian O'Driscoll last year. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Charged with overseeing the forwards and defence, Plumtree has improved both aspects of the Canes’ game. Their defence has been particularly superb, only the Brumbies having had a sterner during the regular season.

But Plumtree’s men face a hugely demanding task in keeping the Highlanders’ attack quiet tomorrow in Wellington, particularly with the ingenuity of Tony Brown driving their systems and starter plays.

The former All Black turned down an approach from Leinster recently and, like Plumtree, his standing within the game looks set to continue on an upward trajectory even if the Highlanders can’t cut the Canes apart.

Unsung Highlanders pack

The likes of Naholo, Ben and Aaron Smith, Sopoaga and Paddy Osborne garner many of the Highlanders-related headlines, and justifiably so. They make up a scintillating backline, but this Highlanders pack has been impressively durable all season too.

Odwa Ndungane tackled by Josh Hohneck and Malakai Fekitoa Photosport / Dianne Manson/INPHO Josh Hohneck has made some massive hits this year. Photosport / Dianne Manson/INPHO / Dianne Manson/INPHO

Josh Hohneck has battered into tackles with glee, while 33-year-old Alex Ainley has been outstanding in what is, remarkably, his first season of Super Rugby. Co-captain Nasi Manu has led with his ball-carrying strength and hooker Liam Coltman has been combative throughout.

Importantly, the Highlanders pack have married their muscular effort with some impressive ball handling, although the same could be said of the majority of forward packs in New Zealand.

If it is to be the Highlanders who lift the trophy, it’s likely that one of the backs will grab the limelight again. Manu and co. will enjoy their latest success with a typically humble reaction.

New Zealand power

Hansen could be forgiven for overseeing much of this Super Rugby season with a smug expression on his face, such has been the strength of the effort from the New Zealand teams.

Nehe Milner-Skudder makes a break Photosport / Grant Down/INPHO Milner-Skudder is the latest explosive talent to emerge at Super Rugby level. Photosport / Grant Down/INPHO / Grant Down/INPHO

Perhaps the Chiefs and Crusaders have gone backwards in terms of their output, but the Canes and Landers have definitely made huge bounds of improvement. The Blues were frustratingly poor at times, but the individual talent of their young players is beyond doubt. Tana Umaga must sort that mess out next season.

Regardless of the Blues’ woes, New Zealand rugby continues to look in fantastic shape, with an endless line of high-quality players breaking through each season.

The New Zealand U20s were world champions this year, while anyone who keeps an eye on the Auckland schools competition will be aware that the next generation already possess freakish skills and athleticism.

The future looks black.

Pure rugby

The frustration of end-of-season play-offs is that the two best teams in the regular season table oftentimes don’t get the opportunity to face off for the trophy.

Ma'a Nonu breaks the tackle of Richard Buckman Photosport / John Cowpland/INPHO The Canes beat the Highlanders earlier this season. Photosport / John Cowpland/INPHO / John Cowpland/INPHO

That’s not the case in the 2015 version of Super Rugby, however, as the table-topping Hurricanes meet the team who scored the second highest number of match points before the play-offs.

The Waratahs, Stormers, Brumbies and Chiefs all had their moments, as did the likes of the Crusaders and the delightfully entertaining Lions, but few would question the argument that this final represents the two best teams in Super Rugby going at it.

The fact that both play extremely effective attacking rugby makes this final all the more exciting. Calling this one is no easy matter, although we’re leaning towards the Highlanders ever so slightly.

Either way, this is going to be fun.

The teams for the Super Rugby final are littered with major attacking quality

Analysis: Hurricanes limit Pocock’s turnover threat to make Super final

Analysis: Leinster-linked Brown drives sensational Highlanders attack

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