The Highlanders stormed home to beat the Hurricanes 38-21 as Super Rugby Aotearoa, a competition launched with much fanfare when New Zealand believed it had eliminated Covid-19, closed early with the return of the virus.
AS IT HAPPENED | Highlanders v Hurricanes
The scheduled final match, a showdown on Sunday between the champion Crusaders and their arch-rivals the second-placed Blues, was cancelled because of the outbreak.
The Crusaders, who reached an unassailable lead in the competition last week when they beat the Highlanders, had put celebrations on hold to avoid any distraction before closing against the Blues.
But the return of Covid-19 in Auckland put New Zealand's largest city in lockdown, ruling out live sport, while lighter restrictions elsewhere in the country allowed the Highlanders to play the Hurricanes behind closed doors in Dunedin on Saturday.
But unlike the first seven rounds of the competition, played in packed stadiums, there were no spectators to applaud the Highlanders.
"It was bizarre really. I've never played a game like this before. It was absolutely silent," Highlanders captain Ash Dixon said as his side produced a 24-point burst in the second half to cement their third win.
"It was kind of 50-50 (14-14 at half-time). We just had to tighten up our D (defence) a bit and hold on to the ball for longer phases. So we decided to hold the ball and things started to happen."
In the roofed Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Highlanders outscored the Hurricanes five tries to three in a fast-paced spectacle but remained fourth on the table.
For the Hurricanes, who had three tries scrubbed out because of their own errors, it brought an end to a five-match winning streak and they missed a chance to overtake the Blues and finish runners up.
The first half saw tit-for-tat tries with Hurricanes wing Vince Aso the first to touch down after a 70 metre counterattack.
The Highlanders replied immediately when Ngane Punivai, on as an injury replacement, scored with his first touch of the ball.
When scrumhalf Jamie Booth scored the Hurricanes' second from another counter-attack, the Highlanders' instant response was a try to Dixon - playing his 100th Super game - who scored from a lineout drive.
With the scores locked at half-time, a Josh Ioane penalty soon after the resumption put the Highlanders in front for the first time.
Tries to Michael Collins and Mitch Hunt, as well as a penalty try which saw Ardie Savea yellow-carded, the Highlanders had put on 24 unanswered points in the second half before Peter Umaga-Jensen scored the Hurricanes' third try.
Final points in the competition saw the Crusaders win with 30, following by the Blues (24), Hurricanes (21), Highlanders (14) and the Chiefs (5).
Tries: Ngane Punivai, Ash Dixon, Ayden Johnstone, penalty try, Mitch Hunt
Conversions: Josh Ioane (3), Hunt
Tries: Vince Aso, Jamie Booth, Peter Umaga-Jenson
Conversions: Jordie Barrett (3)
15 Mitch Hunt, 14 Josh McKay, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Whetton, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Ayden Johnstone
Substitutes: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Manaaki Selby-Ricket, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Ngane Punivai, 23 Tom Florence
15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Billy Proctor, 12 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Dane Coles (captain), 1 Ben May
Substitutes: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Tevita Mafileo, 18 Pouri Rakete-Stones, 19 Liam Mitchell, 20 Devan Flanders, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Salesi Rayasi, 23 Chase Tiatia