The Hurricanes notched a 33-31 win over the Highlanders in a Super 14 game as high on entertainment as it was low on significance.
The Hurricanes notched a 33-31 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday in a game of rugby as high on entertainment as it was low on significance.
The Hurricanes do still retain a small sliver of hope for semi-final qualification after the win – they still need other results to go their way – but they'll need to be tighter on defence than they were here.
A feast of rugby, a welter of tries, a positive attitude all through, a healthy level of competitive instinct throughout, this was a marvellous game of rugby.
Both sides had a bonus point for four tries wrapped up by half-time in a fifty-point first half that had you begging referee Vinny Munro not to blow the whistle. Ever. The Hurricanes led 26-24 courtesy of having landed one conversion extra.
It was fitting that when the teams even opted to go for goal from a penalty – the first instance of that was in the 50th minute – it went wide. A gentle reminder to them to keep serving up what had gone before.
The new rules played their part, opening up the game from the off and with barely a ruck contested for longer than a couple of seconds – whether turned over or not. The runners ran at gaps, supporters looked for space and offload lines. It was as entertaining as rugby gets.
The second half was a little slower, with the weather not playing along and a stiff wind and rain making the going heavier and heavier. Both coaches had obviously had words about defence at the break as well, for there were fewer gaps for runners to run at.
Things got increasingly frantic in the second half as points became much harder to come by. Both sides had promising moves either snuffed out at the death or ruined by 50-50 passes not quite sticking in the manner they had in the first half.
After 30 scoreless second-half minutes, it was Ma'a Nonu who found the extra reserves of energy, speed and physicality to crash over under the posts and seal the deal. The Highlanders just looked shot by then.
The Hurricanes scored first, making it look easy. Aaron Cruden broke inside the rush defence, found Conrad Smith, whose delayed offload sent Karl Lowe over near the posts. Cruden converted.
The Highlanders took just three minutes to reply, with Steven Setephano running a good straight line at a drifting defence and Jimmy Cowan taking the final pass to race away to the corner. Israel Dagg tied the scores at 7-7.
The Hurricanes posted an immediate riposte, after a dreadful mistake from the restart by the Highlanders, and it was Cruden again breaking inside, before his support was brought down just short of the line. The Highlanders' fringe defence was noticeable by its absence and Michael Paterson picked and crashed over. Cruden made a hash of an easy conversion.
Back came the Highlanders, with Fetu'u Vainikolo wriggling free down the left, finding Cowan inside who found Alando Soakai outside again for the race to the line. Dagg, like Cruden, botched his conversion.
The third Hurricanes try was followed by a stern word from Munro to Cowan, who unleashed a torrent of blind fury as he felt he had been cleaned out off the ball, clearing the way for Tyson Keats to snipe over. Replays backed up Cowan's version of events, just as the on-field microphones backed up Munro's that Cowan's rantings were just not acceptable.
It took the Highlanders a little longer to reply this time, but on the half-hour it was Cowan again who was instrumental in the move, this time moving the ball blind to Ben Smith who took the ball on the drift and raced over in the corner. This time, the teams were separated though. Cruden converted Keats' try, Dagg could not convert Smith's.
Cruden himself grabbed the Hurricanes' bonus-point score, finishing off a scintillating counter-attack sparked by Cory Jane from full-back and converting his own try.
But right on half-time, Jason Rutledge finished off a powerful driving maul to get a bonus point for the home side, with Dagg converting from the touchline.
The second half got bogged down a bit as the teams both tired and tightened up. Nonu's try broke the game, but there was time for prop Bronson Murray to dive over with the final play of the game and earn the Highlanders their second bonus point.
Man of the match: Aaron Cruden finally made an eighty-minute step up to the Super 14. His first excellent display of his fledgling career.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Cowan, Soakai, Smith, Rutledge, Murray
Cons: Dagg 3
For the Hurricanes:
Tries: Lowe, Paterson, Keats, Cruden, Nonu
Cons: Cruden 4
Highlanders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Kenny Lynn, 12 Jason Shoemark, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Michael Hobbs, 9 Jimmy Cowan (c), 8 Steven Setephano, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Chris King.
Replacements: 16 Peter Mirrielees, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Joe Tuineau, 19 John Hardie, 20 Scott Cowan, 21 Robbie Robinson, 22 James Paterson.
Hurricanes: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Tamati Ellison, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Michael Patterson, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements:16 Dane Coles, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Jeremy Thrush, 19 Nick Crosswell, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Jason Kawau, 22 David Smith.
Referee: Vinny Munro