James Mortimer 30.Dec.2012Getty Images
The Crusaders, reigning New Zealand Conference winners from 2011, held out a with a tight victory that not only indicated the most decorated team still had their cold hearted ability to squeeze out a victory, but that the Blues could perhaps could push for title number four.
Those attempts at crystal ball gazing were flawed as it would turn out to be a season of soul searching for the Blues, while the Crusaders would for the first time in nearly a decade not be the standard bearers for Kiwi franchises.
The Highlanders victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton suggested the Southerners would again be a threat, but for the faithful at the Tron, it would be last time they saw their merry band lose at home for nearly six months.
Only the Hurricanes first match of the season, a loss in Cape Town, hinted at what would unfold for their campaign, quietly scoring 26 points despite having no less than four players march off to the sinbin.
The Chiefs, champions elect, would embark on a nine match winning streak that would set up their march to the trophy.
Coach Dave Rennie, who by his own words assembled a bunch of grafters and workers, had towards the close of the season put together arguably the most dangerous outfit of the competition.
The alleged weakness up front had turned into some form of wild eyed bandwagon of crazed pack members led by the affable Sona Taumalolo, while the passing of not one but two captaincy armbands to Craig Clarke and Liam Messam led to the defining of the unsung forwards for the entirety of the season.
Even the loss of All Black Richard Kahui didn’t seem to interrupt the Chiefs, although the season long pattern that suggested a first crown was heading to Hamilton was given a hearty shake by the Crusaders and Hurricanes at the end of their campaign.
Indeed the red and blacks 28-21 win in Hamilton in Round 17 was a statement by the Crusaders after a challenging season that saw them record a 2-3 win loss start, compounded by the late return of Richie McCaw.
The Crusaders may have had the comfort of a home crowd this season, but their revenge tinted victory over the Chiefs only fuelled the champions-elect, who put in a titanic performance to knock out Super Rugby’s most successful team in the semi-finals – the first side outside of the Bulls to achieve this feat.
With the Chiefs high octane game being balanced out by their fearsome forward pack, perhaps the only team that could have questioned their title run was the Hurricanes, who was one of only four sides to beat the Waikato based outfit.
And for the Hurricanes, it was their Grand Final, closing out the Chiefs in the capital to end a year that Conrad Smith and his troops would have deemed a successful one.
The best try-scoring rate of any team by a healthy margin showed the Hurricanes classical attacking blade, able to cut any opponent to shreds when glistening, was in fine health.
The Highlanders season had a scary familiarity to it, starting so strongly before a closing campaign fade.
Five losses in their last seven fixtures cost the Otago based side a first final’s appearance in a decade, but if the trend of title winners spending a couple of season building momentum remains in place – then perhaps the Highlanders will look to 2013 with more than a slight smile on their faces.
The Blues had a season that they would in theory like to forget, their worst over a proud history, but one perhaps best summed up by New Zealand Rugby Union Chief Executive Steve Tew.
Tew remarked mid-season that it was almost impossible to have all five Super Rugby teams from a conference succeed, and unfortunately with four Kiwi teams performing well in 2012 one had to be towards the bottom rungs.
However a rollicking 29-23 win in Pretoria early in the season was joined by back-to-back victories to close out their year, the final being a 30-16 triumph over the best Australian Conference side throughout the campaign in the Brumbies.
The 2013 season for the New Zealand Conference begins with the Highlanders hosting the Chiefs on February 22, while the Hurricanes will entertain the Blues.
The Crusaders commence their season in Round Three at Eden Park.