3 Jul 2015

Highlanders hit Wellington for big final

7:16 am on 3 July 2015

Hundreds of Highlanders supporters are joining up to invade the capital for tomorrow night's Super Rugby final.

Ben Smith enjoys the adulation of Highlanders fans after their semi-final win over the NSW Waratahs.

Ben Smith and Highlanders fans celebrate the team's win in the semi final. Photo: Photosport

The Dunedin-based franchise is playing its first final for 16 years against Wellington's Hurricanes.

An estimated 6,000 people will travel to Wellington from outside the region for the game, mainly from Auckland and the South Island.

Many of those fans are calling themselves the Landers Army.

The organiser of a vehicle convoy from Auckland, Andrew James, said he will lead their army contingent dressed as William Wallace from the film Braveheart.

He said his friend, Chris Brun, was dressing as Hamish from the film and leading another convoy coming up from Invercargill. The groups will meet to invade the capital together.

Mr James said Highlanders supporters expect to be outnumbered four to one but will make a good stand for their team.

The Hurricanes loose forward Ardie Savea.

Hurricanes supporters, who watched Ardie Savea and team-mates win the semi final last weekend, are expected to outnumber Highlanders fans. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

In Dunedin, excitement among fans has been building since the team made the playoffs, and there is growing confidence the team can take the trophy for the first time.

Highlanders hats, scarves and, especially, blue jerseys have become hot property.

The team has run out of flags after giving out $25,000 at home games this year, so has called on fans to bring them back to be sent to Wellington.

The Highlanders' commercial manager, Mike Kerr, says the response has been amazing, with hundreds of flags dropped in.

He said people were writing their mobile phone numbers on the flags, so the supporters who take them to the game can text back a thank you.

Mr Kerr said flags were taken to the semi-final in Sydney last week and made a big difference to team morale.

For fans heading to Wellington, Air New Zealand found an extra 300 seats by diverting one of its international planes to Dunedin.

Kiwirail said the Interislander ferries were taking an extra 1,000 foot passengers across Cook Strait from Picton on Saturday.

Convoys of the self-proclaimed Landers Army have been organised to Wellington, with about 15,00 people saying on Facebook they intend to join.

The Highlanders co-captain, Ben Smith, said all the public backing means a lot.

"You just have to go into town and you can see all the flags are up and people are really looking forward to the weekend.

"So just on behalf of the team a big thanks, and we hear ya."

The first tickets for the match sold in under a minute, and people had to camp outside Te Papa overnight to get their hands on the second set.

But with the Westpac Stadium short on space to fit the fans, Wellington pubs will be picking up the overflow.

The Green Man in central Wellington was decked out in the Hurricanes' black and yellow ahead of the game.

The Green Man pub decked out in black and yellow ahead of the Super Rugby Final

The Green Man is ready for the final. Photo: RNZ/Alex Ashton

Its owner, Ciaran O'Kelly, said they would be pulling a fair few pints.

"Two big days... coming up. Friday looks like it's going to be packed with some Hurricanes supporters and maybe some Highlanders supporters. And then Saturday is going to be absolute mayhem.

"It looks like close to Rugby World Cup quarter finals," he said.

"The amount of enquiries we're getting through the phones is full on"

Rebecca Imrie and Ian Dumbleton were a couple of the lucky Hurricanes fans - they got tickets.

But come full-time they would be among the thousands moving on to central city bars.

They said there was a huge weekend ahead.

"I think this will be as big, or bigger, as the Lions - 2005, I think," said Mr Dumbleton.

"Wellington just embraced the whole culture. The rugby, the sport, the pubs were humming. I just think [Saturday] is going to be another great day and night."

"They're doing it for Jerry," added Ms Imrie, referring to the recently deceased former Hurricanes player Jerry Collins.

Both thought the Hurricanes had the win in the bag.

Whichever way the game goes, it is sure to be a big weekend for Wellington, which has never hosted a Super Rugby final.

Those who do not fancy watching at the stadium or the pub can catch the action at Shed Six on the waterfront.

The Wellington City Council was setting up a big screen, for an alcohol-free viewing for supporters from both sides, meanwhile further south Dunedin's Town Hall will be open from 5.30pm tomorrow for a big-screen family fan-zone.

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