Late rally not enough
The Highlanders had to hold on in the face of a fierce second half rally to edge the Hurricanes 49-44 in an 11-try game.
The 93-point encounter in Wellington's Cake Tin on Saturday produced plenty of entertainment by two teams already out of the running for the Super Rugby play-offs.
For most of the first hour the Highlanders showed greater urgency and enthusiasm than the Hurricanes, who went through the motions at a pedestrian pace.
Add to that their lack of discipline and the home side gave themselves virtually no chance of winning this one.
The home team's best period of play came after the Highlanders were reduced to 14 men, creating some holes on defence which they exploited brilliantly.
The skills levels in the early stages were very poor - passes going into touch, kicks charged down and penalties at scrums. It meant the game just spluttered along for most of the first quarter.
While the Highlanders eventually found their rhythm and held onto the ball to score three tries in quick succession, the Hurricanes' sloppy play continued for the rest of the first and the error count mounted at an alarming rate.
It was not till they were more than 20 points down that the Hurricanes started to show the urgency you have expected from the outset.
And then came the late rally, with the Highlanders - the team with the worst disciplinary record in the competition - contributing to their own downfall by twice being reduced to 14 men.
It was the worst start possible by the Hurricanes, a penalty for offside right from the kick off. Colin Slade, from right in front, opened the scoring - 3-0 after just a minute.
After five minutes of mundane phase play by the Hurricanes the Highlanders were penalised for a high tackle and Beauden Barritt levelled the scores - 3-all. And when Tamati Ellison was again penalised for a high tackle in the 13th minute, Barrett gave his team the lead - 6-3.
It was Hosea Gear that produced the first moment worth talking about - a gliding run from deep inside his half, as he worked his way past several lazy defenders, which ended up with Mose Tuiali'i getting the five-pointer.
Slade, who started the previous move when he put Gear into space, then produced another sublime moment when he ran into a huge hole and then a great chip-kick, with Tamati Ellison making amends for his earlier indiscretions by scoring the try.
Slade added both conversions and a penalty a few minutes later as the visitors raced into a 20-6 lead.
And the rout continued, as Elliot Dixon broke clear and put Aaron Smith over. Slade's conversion made it 27-6 just over 25 minutes into the game.
The Hurricanes now threw everything into attack - even opting for a scrum from a penalty right in front. And the reward eventually came when Ash Dixon worked his way over after a few quick phases. Barrett closed the gap to 13-27 with the conversion.
However, the Highlanders were not done yet and Kade Poki brushed aside a few feeble tackles and went over for the bonus-point try just before the hooter, to make it 32-13 at the half-time break.
The Highlanders also produced the first points of the second half, a Slade penalty after more indiscipline by the home side.
With the final quarter approaching the Highlanders were reduced to 14 met - scrumhalf Aaron Smith sent to the sin bin for deliberately killing the ball.
And the Hurricanes finally got their reward when Ben Franks went over in the right corner after the Hurricanes eventually ran out of defenders. Barrett added the extras and at 20-35 there was still a glimmer of hope.
The comeback continued when Ash Dixon found a huge hole in midfield and quick hands then put Julian Savea over. Barrett made it 27-35.
However, a powerful 60-metre run from Hosea Gear produced the try that stemmed the flood. And that was followed by a sublime score from Elliot Dixon, after a great bust by TJ Ioane. Hayden Parker kicked both conversions - 49-27.
Chris Smylie and James Broadhurst pulled two back for the Hurricanes in quick succession, with Barrett adding both conversions - 41-49 with seven minutes remaining.
Bronson Murray was then yellow carded for another professional foul. It left the Highlanders a man down for the last five minutes and despite Parker kicking a penalty to leave the Hurricanes just one score down, the men from Dunedin hung on to move off the bottom of the table - 49-44 win.
Man of the match: Beauden Barrett may not have been flawless, but the manner in which he rectified some of his own mistakes showed his class. Conrad Smith also had his moments. Unfortunately too few of their teammates showed the same urgency. Elliot Dixon may not be a genuine openside flank, but he did a fine job of imitating one - in fact his work at the breakdown was invaluable. Ben Smith was class, Aarin Smith was sharp with his service from the base, while Hosea Gear and Kade Poki had a few good runs. The Highlanders pack also outplayed the opposition. Colin Slade produced two moments of magic in the first half that opened up the game, set the tone and laid the foundation for an upset. He was solid in his all-round game and wins our award.
For the Hurricanes:
Tries: A Dixon, Franks, Savea, Smylie, Broadhurst
Cons: Barrett 5
Pens: Barrett 3
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Tuiali'i, Treeby, A Smith, Poki, Gear, E Dixon
Cons: Slade 3, Parker 2
Pens: Slade 3
Yellow cards: Aaron Smith (Highlanders, 53 - professional foul, deliberately killing the ball), Bronson Murray (Highlanders, 75 - professional foul, deliberately killing the ball)
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Reynold Lee-Lo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben May, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Reggie Goodes, 17 John Schwalger, 18 Mark Reddish, 19 Brad Shields, 20 Jack Lam, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Matt Proctor.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 TJ Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn (captain), 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Jake Paringatai, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Buxton Popoalii.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)