Ma'a Nonu was shown a red card as the Hurricanes crashed to an opening 14-9 Super Rugby upset defeat to the Highlanders at Westpac Stadium.
Nonu's exit was due to two yellows, the latter for a shoulder charge on All Black team-mate Jimmy Cowan. However, the scrum-half's smiling face following the dismissal may leave a bitter taste in the mouth of Hurricanes boss Mark Hammett.
In truth though, the visitors were deserved winners in Wellington as they scrapped for every inch, their points coming via Lima Sopoaga and replacement fly-half Robbie Robinson. It was Adam Thomson though who starred on Friday.
Thomson was his lively self in the loose but also offered the grunt up front that saw the mixture of Southland and Otago forward contingent enjoy a good evening. So often has the so-called soft underbelly of the Hurricanes been scrutinised and the visitors highlighted that fact as the pressure applied up front forced mistakes wider out.
It was an unfortunate trend in the 2011 opener as early-year rustiness saw copious handling errors from both sides, more so from the hosts who struggled for a period of rhythm as the line-out was off colour from the outset.
Andrew Hore's outfit were always behind at the Westpac and a knock-on from lock Jason Eaton in the red zone with three minutes remaining arguably summed up their night.
20-year-old Sopoaga opened the scoring on nine minutes with a decent strike that was cancelled out by opposite number Aaron Cruden soon after. Both kickers were set to endure indifferent games from the kicking tee though in the end.
But in open play came the youngster's moment to remember as, in his Super Rugby debut, he was on the shoulder of a breaking Cowan on fifteen minutes to claim the first and only try of the game. He missed the simple extras and was lucky the Highlanders held on to win.
The Hurricanes needed some structure and it did not help their cause that Nonu was showed his first yellow of the night after he entered a ruck from the side when 11-6 down.
From there the errors continued but the Highlanders continued to show the steel that was evident in the ITM Cup from Southland to run out deserved winners, but only just.
Man-of-the-match: Tackles aplenty and skills that will have caught the eye of Graham Henry. Well done Adam Thomson for a typically busy day in Highlanders colours.
For the Hurricanes:
Pen: Cruden 3
For the Highlanders:
Pen: Sopoaga 2, Robinson
Hurricanes: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Mark Reddish, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 James Broadhurst, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Neemia Tialata, 18 Faifili Levave, 19 Serge Lilo, 20 Chris Eaton, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Andre Taylor.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 James Paterson, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kade Poki, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 David Te Moana, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (capt).
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Joe Tuineau, 19 John Hardie, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Robbie Robinson, 22 Siale Piutau.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson Australia)
By Adam Kyriacou