The Hurricanes retained their habit of playing their best rugby when their situation was desperate but their late surge at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin wasn’t enough to prevent the Highlanders from getting back on the winning trail with a deserved 35-31 Vodacom Super Rugby victory on Friday.
The Highlanders actually led 35-12 after their 55th minute intercept try to wing Patrick Osborne, so the Hurricanes scored 19 unanswered points in the last 25 minutes of play, with Beauden Barrett running in his team’s third try just a minute from the fulltime hooter to condemn the hosts to a nervy last play of the game.
But unlike last week, when they were narrowly shaded by the Western Force, the Highlanders showed a lot of urgency when defending their lead. They held their nerve to clinch a win that always looked on the cards during a match that they were never headed in and which they led from the 13th minute, which was when flyhalf Lima Sopoaga kicked his second penalty to take his team 6-3 in front.
The first half was all about kicks as the two flyhalves traded penalties, the two pivots ending the game with 51 points between them. Both teams played good rugby in a first half punctuated by too many errors, and the Highlanders worked hard to break down a much improved Hurricanes defensive effort.
However they did enjoy the territorial ascendancy and they forced the Hurricanes into errors which were punished by Sopoaga’s boot. He kicked six penalties against three from Barrett as the home team took an 18-9 lead to halftime.
The Hurricanes started the second half on fire, and their early dominance of possession and field position was rewarded with the penalty that enabled Barrett to cut the deficit to six points. That though was the last Hurricanes point scoring for a while, with the Highlanders repelling a long period of pressure before a counter-attack set up the first try of the game.
The Highlanders had run it back after seizing on a poor clearance from a scrum turn-over by the Hurricanes, and though TJ Peranara saved the immediate danger by intercepting, his clearance was in turn run back with interest by Ben Smith, who had the equally inform Aaron Smith up with him before the ball was transferred to try scorer Phil Burleigh.
Sopoaga converted and then added a penalty to take the Highlanders to a 28-12 lead, and the Highlanders may have thought that Osborne’s intercept try was the coup de grace. If they did think that it was nearly a fatal mistake, as the Hurricanes fought back with some impressive rugby from that point. Andre Taylor’s injection at fullback had much to do with the resurgence as he added a cutting edge to their attacking game that wasn’t there before.
The fightback was started when Ben Franks burrowed over from close range following a period of sustained pressure from the Hurricanes, who were winning a lot of penalties. That was in the 63rd minute. In the 68th minute the visitors were aided by the yellow carding of Highlanders reserve loose-forward Jarrad Hoeata, but they still deserve credit for the continuity they brought to their game.
Barrett crossed twice in what were almost carbon copy tries of one another as both featured TJ Peranara in the build-up and were then ended by him blitzing around the outside to score. After he scored the second he took a drop-kick for his conversion attempt in a quest to give his team a chance to score the winner.
The Hurricanes did build up impressively from their own half but in the end the attack was halted by a knock-on and the Wellington team had to be content with just the bonus point. It was, however, more than had appeared likely earlier in the game.
Tries: Phil Burleigh, Patrick Osborne. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalty: Lima Sopoaga (7)
Tries: Ben Franks, Beauden Barrett (2). Conversions: Beauden Barrett (2). Penalties: Beauden Barrett (4)