A brilliant brace of tries from second-row Blade Thomson helped the Hurricanes labour past the Crusaders 16-9 in Wellington.
A brilliant brace of tries from second-row Blade Thomson helped the Hurricanes labour past the Crusaders 16-9 in Wellington on Saturday.
Masterminded by Beauden Barrett, and with impressive displays in the loose from front-rows Dane Coles and Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen, the hosts should have wrapped things up long before Thomson's dash to the line in the final ten minutes.
But handling errors, a struggling set-piece kept and the Crusaders' infamous knack of staying in such games honed by years of success ensured a nervy end to proceedings, and a wave of relief rather than a roar of triumph echoed round the Cake Tin when Mike Fraser blew for the last time.
The opening exchanges were tense, dominated by tentative back-and-forth kicking and breakdown infringements, until Alapati Leuia – the scourge of the Crusaders when the sides met in Christchurch – cut a lovely scything line through midfield into the visitors' 22.
Recycle quickly, and a real scoring chance would present itself, but openside Matt Todd came clattering in from the side to seal off the ball and take one for the team: he was sin-binned, and having missed with an early shot at goal, Barrett broke the deadlock from the tee.
Slade levelled things up minutes later, but the Crusaders lived dangerously as the first-half progressed. Tom Taylor was charged down on his own line, Andy Ellis missed his half-back partner with a pass on the 22, and Ardie Savea would have scored had early replacement Hadleigh Parkes not lost the ball metres from the whitewash.
Barrett restored the home lead shortly after the first quarter when the Crusaders again shot themselves in the foot deep in their own territory, the ball squirting loose from a ruck and Jordan Taufua straying offside.
But the visitors could only scramble and flounder in such areas of the pitch for so long. Julian Savea chased down his own kick in the shadow of the Crusaders' posts, scragged and turned over Taylor, and the ball was sent rapidly left where the yellow jerseys lined up with five points at their mercy.
It was the industrious Thomson who gathered on the touchline and showed surprising nimbleness to step the cover defence and crash over to press home his side's advantage; Barrett failed to convert from out wide.
Leading 11-3, the Hurricanes had the bit between their teeth, with the fly-half – still unable to force his way into the All Blacks number ten jersey – pulling the strings, embarking on a glorious slaloming counter from his own 22 that left four men clutching at thin air.
But for all the dominance in possession and territory the hosts enjoyed, they failed to rack up the points before the break, while the Crusaders will have been relieved to get into the changing rooms trailing by just eight.
Kieran Read and Dan Carter lurked on the visitors' bench, and the longer the 'Canes ran the show after half-time, the more likely it was Todd Blackadder would introduce his galacticos.
Though the hosts continued to enjoy the lion's share of the ball, two Slade penalties early in the second-half cut their gap to just two points. Both All Blacks stars had entered the fray within fifteen minutes, replacing the injured Jordan Taufua and the dazed Slade, who had been sent sprawling by a brutal collision with Dane Coles, and was taken for a Head Injury Assessment he unsurprisingly failed.
And gradually, inexorably, as the Hurricanes failed to make their ascendancy pay, and their set-piece stuttered, the Crusaders grew in both confidence and potency, brilliant last-ditch defence foiling Johnny McNicholl in the corner.
Time was fast ticking away when the hosts finally made their play, and it came out of absolutely nothing. Cory Jane slid a grubber down the touchline just inside the visitors' half, and with Nafi Tuitavake hesitant over the bouncing ball, Thomson galloped up behind him, plucked the pill from the air and showed an astonishing turn of pace to sprint some thirty yards untouched to the corner.
It was an awesome sight, but crucially, however, Barrett again was off-target with the conversion from out wide, leaving the Crusaders in need of a converted try to draw the game, and five minutes to get there.
The inevitable pressure came on, the red jerseys sweeping downfield and into the 'Canes' 22. As the final minute ticked down, the hosts found an unlikely hero in the form of replacement Reggie Goodes, who flopped limpet-like over a breakdown and won his side a penalty.
To the relief of the home crowd, the resultant lineout was successful where others had gone badly awry, and another infringement from the desperate Crusaders allowed Barrett to smash the ball into touch, end the game, and bring the Hurricanes to within a point of their rivals on the overall standings.
Tries: Thomson 2
Pens: Barrett 2
Pens: Slade 3
Yellow card: Todd (professional foul)
Hurricanes: 15 Matt Proctor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Alapati Leiua, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Blade Thomson, 4 Jeremy Thursh (c), 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 James Broadhurst, 20 Jack Lam, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Hadleigh Parkes, 23 James Marshall.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty (c), 11 Nafi Tuitavake, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Kieran Read, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Rob Thompson.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)