COVID-19 is back in New Zealand, the Blues and Crusaders weren’t allowed to play their final match of the campaign and crowds weren’t allowed to attend the one game that did get the green light to go ahead this weekend.

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That still didn’t stop Super Rugby Aotearoa going out with a bang as the Highlanders and Hurricanes played out a entertaining, high-octane battle in an empty Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday.

In proved to be the final match of a generally exceptional 10-week competition, the Highlanders were spurred on by co-captains Aaron Smith and Ash Dixon’s 150th and 100th respective Super Rugby appearances to churn out a 38-21 victory.

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Du’Plessis Kirifi has his sights set on an All Blacks spot

Even without any fans in the stands, both sides put out a compelling display of running rugby, a fitting sign-off from the competition given how the five-team tournament has played out since it kicked off in June.

With that in mind, here are the five best performers in the final round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Aaron Smith (Highlanders)

If there is anything to take away from the Highlanders’ Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, it’s that Aaron Smith remains one of the best halfbacks on the planet, if not the best of them all.

Some may say that title belongs to Springboks star Faf de Klerk, but it would be nigh on impossible to find any other halfback in the world who has performed at such a consistently high level for such a prolonged period of time.

Ever since he debuted for the Highlanders back in 2011, Smith’s sublime standards have rarely dipped, and Saturday’s clash was further evidence of that in what’s been a sensational season in the Kiwi domestic league.

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The variety of passes he made throughout the match were key to the Highlanders’ chances of success, while his leadership shone as he conducted his side’s attacking rhythm.

Finished the game with 47 running metres, one defender beaten, four clean breaks, an offload, a turnover won and a try assist to cap off a good display in his 150th outing for his beloved franchise.

Peter Umaga-Jensen (Hurricanes)

For a third straight week, young midfielder Peter Umaga-Jensen has starred in the Hurricanes backline to thrust himself further into the All Blacks reckoning.

The presence of those such as Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor might restrict the 22-year-old’s chance of national honours, but he’s making himself hard to ignore for Ian Foster and his fellow selectors.

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Standing at 1.87m and 102kg, Umaga-Jensen possesses a big physical frame, but his point of difference lies in the deft skill set he has with ball in hand.

Both aspects of his game were on show in Dunedin, as he busted through the line three times and beat three defenders to run for 63 metres, scoring a try and setting up another in doing so.

Regardless of whether he makes the cut for Foster’s 35-man squad in two weeks’ time, the development Umaga-Jensen has shown in Super Rugby Aotearoa makes him an exciting prospect for the future.

Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)

Speaking of the All Blacks, a mammoth selection headache looms for Foster within his outside back cohort given Jordie Barrett’s coming-of-age campaign.

Previously renowned as a prodigious talent that perhaps lacked the maturity or composure to establish himself as an All Blacks starter and a franchise player at the Hurricanes, the 23-year-old has altered those perceptions this season.

His improved decision-making and coolness under pressure have been hallmarks of the Hurricanes’ change in fortunes since he returned from injury against the Chiefs in round three.

Barrett couldn’t extend his side’s winning run to six straight matches, but his influence on the match was in no way diminished as he ran for a match-high 122 metres, beat six defenders, broke the line three times, threw three offloads and scored six points.

With figures like those commonplace on Barrett’s stat sheet, he’s bound to give Damian McKenzie, Will Jordan and older brother Beauden a tightly-contested run for the All Blacks’ No. 15 jersey.

Jamie Booth (Hurricanes)

Given the unenviable task of stepping up in place of star halfback TJ Perenara, Jamie Booth delivered a spellbinding display of running rugby in the Hurricanes’ No. 9 jersey.

Wreaking havoc in the first half, the plucky ex-Highlanders scrumhalf caused his former side plenty of issues as he splintered their defensive line twice with some searing breaks down the left edge.

The 25-year-old showed a clean pair of heels and some tidy footwork to play a key role in his side’s first try inside the opening five minutes before breaking away to score himself 25 minutes later.

Hurricanes fans could be at pains, then, to understand why Booth was taken from the field midway through the second half just as the Highlanders were pulling away considering his influence on the first half.

Still, with 91 running metres, two defenders beaten, three clean breaks, an offload, 13 tackles from 15 attempts and a try to his name, there’s plenty to admire about the diminutive Manawatu product’s performance.

Michael Collins (Highlanders)

One of the more underrated players in New Zealand, the Highlanders seemed to have found a spot for Michael Collins in their midfield in the closing stages of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

It’s there, in his preferred position, where the experienced 27-year-old flourished as his communication, organisational skills and distribution were prominent in a dangerous Highlanders attack.

Those aspects of Collins’ game were again vital to the Highlanders’ competitiveness, making it unsurprising to see him cash in on his second try in as many weeks as he finished off a lovely flowing move.

He added a further 68 running metres, four clean breaks, eight defenders beaten (both of which were match-high figures), three offloads and a 100 percent tackle success rate to complete a polished performance.

With his contract set to expire at the end of this season, Collins will no doubt be surveying his options, but with efforts like this in weeks gone by, you can expect the Highlanders to try and persuade him to stay in Dunedin beyond this year.

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