The Hurricanes held on in the face of a strong late charge by the Blues to record a nail-biting 23-22 Super 14 Round Three win at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday.
It was the Blues' first defeat of the season, but they remained in second place on the standings ... although that could change later in the day.
First it fizzed, then it fizzled, then it fizzed again, and finally it broiled up into a thriller at the end. After 20 minutes the game stood at ten apiece, with one excellent try for either side, but by the break that seemed to be it.
Ten apiece at half-time was a good reflection of the game. Both sides had had six scrums, both seven line-outs (including quickly-taken throws), the penalty count was 4-3 in favour of the Hurricanes - Jimmy Gopperth's brace of misses restored the balance - and both sides had had 33 rucks and mauls.
There were contrasts as well. The Hurricanes forwards pushed harder and were quicker to the breakdown, with the excellent Paul Tito doing much damage to the Blues in defence and Thomas Waldrom bouncing defenders like fairground bumper-cars with the ball in hand. In the final moments, it was this forward superiority which clinched the game.
Outside the pack, the Blues three-quarters ran from deeper and thus with more angle and threat. Left wing Anthony Tuitavake was a constant line-breaker, and with Luke McAlister adding a second playmaker outside of fly-half Isa Nacewa, Isaia Toeava at outside centre also enjoyed plenty of space as the Hurricanes backs struggled to cover all options open to their visitors.
Right from the kick-off, there was an opening. Hurricanes scrum-half Alby Mathewson caught the kick-off and sliced through the chasers but Ma'a Nonu spilled the offload, an inauspicious start to what was a patchy day for the All Black centre.
Mathewson again opened up the defence on his own 22 five minutes later, offloading to left wing David Smith, who left the Blues backs in his slipstream as he accelerated down the touchline. The Hurricanes spread the ball from one side to the other over the next four phases, but the final pass was dropped by Hosea Gear.
Smith was at the centre of the next Hurricanes threat five minutes later, once again proving too fast for Doug Howlett before slipping the ball to full-back Cory Jane. Jane's chip was chased by Tana Umaga and Jerome Kaino, with the former's nudge in the small of the latter's back enough to ensure Umaga both grounded the ball and conceded the penalty that ruled out the try.
Those were the highlights of the opening ten minutes which, with the help of some dismal line-kicking from Nacewa and co. and a couple of scrums won against the head by the Hurricanes pack, belonged exclusively to the men in yellow.
At the end of the ten minutes, they finally snatched the lead, with both Nonu and then Umaga bursting through the middle and combining to send Jane over for the try, which Gopperth converted for a 7-0 lead.
Troy Flavell's chip and catch put enough pressure on the Hurricanes pack that Mathewson was caught offside, and Nacewa reduced the lead to 7-3, but at the restart Daniel Braid was penalised for not rolling away from the tackle, and Gopperth restored the seven-point lead.
On eighteen minutes the Blues restored the balance with a gem of a try. David Smith chipped the ball away, and allowed Tuitavake to run back, with George Pisi surging into the Hurricanes 22 in support. When the ball came back, it was spread wide left, and then back into the middle where Nacewa's grubber was pounced on by Howlett near the uprights.
But from then until the break, defences ruled the roost, and with discipline prevalent, there was precious little ground offered up to the respective attacks. Only Jimmy Gopperth's penalty which struck an upright looked likely to break the deadlock.
The crucial statistic of the second half was the penalty count of 5-1 in favour of the Hurricanes. The discipline they showed, particularly in the face of the final three minutes of ferocious mauling from the Blues when in match-losing penalty territory, was what won them the day. Jimmy Gopperth's two goals from penalties offset the extra try scored by Tuitavake, and gave the home team the crucial extra point.
The first of those was from a kick made 10m easier by John Afoa's careless tongue, after Jonathan Kaplan spotted an equally careless hand in a ruck.
But five minutes into the second half, the Blues had the lead back, with Tuitavake rounding off a superb move. Howlett broke the line taking an inside pass from Nacewa, then passed to Toeava, whose pass to Tuitavake had the home crowd howling for a forward pass, and had his team-mate clear for a simple sprint home. Nacewa's missed conversion left the score 13-15 to the Blues.
Three minutes later, the Hurricanes had the lead back. Cory Jane cleverly chipped and caught in the Blues' 22, and then after Neemia Tialata had taken the ball on, flanker Serge Lilo popped up from a suspicious position at the side of the maul to go over unopposed. Gopperth made it 20-15.
Five minutes later again, the Blues had the lead back! This time, Greg Rawlinson and Kaino were too fast for Tamati Ellison, and charged down the centre's kick, with Rawlinson just touching the bouncing ball down. Nacewa made it 20-22.
Five minutes later again, and the Hurricanes had the lead back! This time George Pisi dropping a simple pass, and his back-tracking support picking the ball up in front of him. Gopperth made it 23-22 with the penalty.
As in the first half, defences grew in stature as time ticked. The Blues might have pinched a winning try, but Daniel Braid was adjudged to have knocked on despite the yellow-shirted hand that also got to the ball, and Kaino's dash to the line was nulled and voided. The Blues might also have pinched a winning penalty, but from 50+ metres it was always a little more hope than expectation that Nacewa would nail it from near the touchline.
The visitors enjoyed so much possession in those final 15 minutes, but the defence was magnificent from the home team, and the Blues forwards made too many handling errors to make their hosts pay. Not a tackle was missed by the Hurricanes fringe defenders, not a gap was allowed to open.
With two minutes to go and with the Blues pushing into the Hurricanes 22, Blues lock Anthony Boric was penalised for holding on to the ball. After seven or eight attacking phases it was a telling moment that an attacker should be penalised rather than a defender, and it was the moment when the game moved away from the Blues.
Man of the Match: Luke McAlister played excellently for the Blues, as did Anthony Tuitavake on the wing. Troy Flavell and Jerome Kaino were the pick of the Blues forwards. There wasn't much to see from the Hurricanes backs; they won the match in the confrontation up front, where Paul Tito capped his 200th Hurricanes appearance with a Man