An underwhelming contest in Wellington witnessed the Highlanders edge out the Hurricanes 18-16 on Friday.
An underwhelming contest in Wellington witnessed the Highlanders edge out the Hurricanes 18-16 in the battle of two in-form sides.
Hayden Parker kicked all of the visitors 18 points, settling the contest with a sharp drop goal.
It was an unspectacular contest hindered slightly by the conditions that never quite lived up to the billing, with defence dominating proceedings.
That was a shame and also unexpected, given how both the Hurricanes and Highlanders arrived in good form.
We've become so accustomed to seeing these two teams run in countless tries that a subdued affair focused on defence was almost disconcerting.
The Highlanders did come away with nine points from inside the 'Canes 22 in the first-half but they were often turned over as Victor Vito and his pack got to work at the breakdown.
In the early arm-wrestle only TJ Perenara managed to dot down for a try, the only one of the contest, and even that was the result of a scrap.
The All Blacks number nine poached the ball from the grasp of his team-mate Aaron Smith with the Highlanders scrum under pressure near their own line, slapping it from his hands before gathering and diving over to score.
An early concern was over the fitness of Beauden Barrett, the in-form fly-half who suffered a blow to the ribs. Andre Taylor took over the kicking duties with the conversion of Perenara's try. It meant the Hurricanes lead 13-9 at the break.
Parker's fourth penalty brought the Highlanders within a point of the lead after half-time, but the contest at the breakdown was turning more into an ill-disciplined mess as Jaco Peyper's patience began wearing thin.
Taylor capitalised with a long-range penalty to restore the four-point advantage as the threat of a card loomed.
But Parker snuck over his fifth penalty off the crossbar following a scrum penalty to keep the Highlanders in the hunt.
The Hurricanes scrum was undoubtedly superior but twice they were pinged for coming in on the angle, costing them first points and then second valuable field position when five metres out from the line.
Taylor's kicking had been sound until he missed a crucial penalty attempt to put the visitors in front as the final 20 minutes approached.
Barrett's inevitable departure with it all to play for at 16-15 was a blow, a withdrawal that Steve Hansen will have looked at with concern given that Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden are already out of the England Test series.
A snap drop-goal from Parker put the Highlanders into the lead, the fly-half in for Liam Sopoaga showing some quick thinking deep in opposition territory for an 18-16 advantage.
It was exactly what the Highlanders needed in a tight game, with even the great Conrad Smith making basic errors.
A mistake at the lineout from the Highlanders set the 'Canes up for an attack which finished with taking the lead from a penalty, but a howling miss from Taylor near to the posts was unforgivable given the context.
Patient build-up from the Hurricanes in the 22 nearly gave Taylor instant redemption, working the defence left and right, and looked to have culminated in a second try for Perenara – but his effort was ruled out due to an obstruction from Ash Dixon with a tough call by the TMO.
Time remained on the clock but a well-judged kick from Parker pinned the Hurricanes back into their 22.
They never made it out, a knock-on at the lineout handing the Highlanders a scrum from which they gleefully booted the ball into touch for a fifth win in six matches, to move one point behind the Chiefs.
Pens: Barrett 2, Taylor
Pens: Parker 5
Drop Goal: Parker
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Motu Matu'u, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 Blade Thomson, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Brad Shields, 22 Chris Smylie, 23 Alapati Leiua.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Jason Emery, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Aki Seuli, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka 22 Trent Renata, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Peterson (New Zealand)