Three tries to two
The Highlanders held on in the face of a furious late charge by the Hurricanes to sneak a 35-31 Super Rugby win in Dunedin on Friday.
Having raced into a 35-12 lead in an thrilling second half, the Highlanders were made to hang on as the Hurricanes scored three tries in the final quarter to come within a whisker of victory.
It was a game with plenty of movement, but not all of it constructive enough to do real damage. The problem, especially for the Hurricanes, was that most of the movement was lateral, rather than being direct, and allowed the defence to hold its ground.
It was not till the last half-hour that the game really burst into life - four tries in the space of 16 minutes setting up a thrilling finish.
Discipline was also a major issue, with the first half littered with penalties. Inside the first half-hour the Hurricanes had been penalised six time, five of which were converted into points. The Highlanders were penalised three times, all three turned into points. By half-time the penalty count had mounted to eight against the Hurricanes and four against the Highlanders.
In the second half it was the Highlanders' discipline that let them down - the penalty count going nine-four against the home team, which was also issued with a yellow card for repeated infringements.
It contributed to the massive comeback.
The Highlanders got off to a great start - exploiting a couple of iffy clearance attempts and taking it through the phases, till they won a penalty right in front. However, Limas Sopoaga hit the upright - not the first time this season he had missed a sitter.
A couple of minutes later after Ben Franks had gone offside, Sopoaga finally put his team on the board with a penalty - 3-0. However, from the restart Beauden Barrett levelled matter when Aaron Smith was ruled to have been in front of the kicker 3-all.
Franks was again on the wrong side of the referee, when he refused to retire after a kick by a teammate, and Sopoaga restored his team's 3-point (6-3) lead. That became 9-3 after yet another soft penalty conceded by a sloppy Hurricanes team in the 18th minute.
The Hurricanes then attacked hard and took the ball through numerous phases, but were a bit too lateral and had to eventually settle for a Barrett penalty - after Ma'afu Fia was penalised for not rolling away in a tackle, 6-9. However, almost straight from the restart Franks was again penalised at the breakdown and Sopoaga made it 12-6.
Sopoaga made it 15-6, after yet another breakdown penalty, before Barrett reduced it to 9-15 on the half-hour mark - also the result of a transgression at the breakdown. Sopoaga made it a nine-point game again (18-9), after Franks was penalised for the fourth time in the first half. That's how it stayed to the break.
The penalty games continued after the break, with Barrett making it a six-point game after just five second-half minute - 12-18.
Again the Highlanders replied quickly, only this time it was with the first try of the game. First Lima Sopoaga cut through in midfield and when the Hurricanes regained possession, they failed to find touch - Ben Smith made them pay with another sublime break that resulted in a try for Phil Burleigh. Sopoaga made it 25-12 with just on a half-hour to go.
The Highlanders flyhalf again made the Hurricanes pay for their lack of discipline, kicking a record seventh penalty (in Highlanders versus Hurricanes games) to make it 28-12.
Patrick Osborne then intercept a floating Hadleigh Parkes pass and raced 50 metres to go over untouched - the Sopoaga conversion making it 35-12 with just over 20 minutes to go.
The Hurricanes, desperate to salvage something from the game, threw everything into attack. The first Hurricanes try came from prop Ben Franks, the most penalised player in the game, who won his team back some of the 12 points he coughed up when he drove over from close range. Barrett's conversion gave them a glimmer of hope at 19-35 with just over 15 minutes to go.
It became an even more intriguing game when the Highlanders were reduced to 14 men in the 68th minute - with replacement Jarrad Hoeata sent to the sin bin after the Highlanders received a team warning for repeated infringements.
It was followed by two quick penalties to the Highlanders, who managed to isolate the one-off Hurricanes runners and then get their hands on the ball to force the turnovers - TJ Ioane and Malakai Fekitoa the heroes for the home team
It was left up to replacement Andre Taylor to spark the Hurricanes, who started a counter inside his 22 and eventually put Barrett into space. The flyhalf showed enough pace to outsprint the cover and then converted his own try - 26-35, with seven minutes on the clock.
With just on a minute left on the clock Barrett went over in the left corner, after the ball was ripped in the tackle. He took a quick conversions attempt, which was wide of the mark, leaving the visitors a chance of snatching a late win at 31-35.
The visitors threw everything into one final attack, but it was ironically a handling error - something that bedevilled their game in the first half - that ended their hope of sneaking into the winners' circle.
Man of the match: Julian Savea was the one player that got the Hurricanes over the advantage line and brother Ardie Savea also had a few decent runs. Andre Taylor also showed his sublime attacking form. Ben Smith was explosive with ball in hand and showed his best position remains fullback. However, our award goes to Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga. Despite his first penalty kick from right in front hitting the upright, he kept the Highlanders in control with his boot and had a crucial break early in the second half that sparked the home team into attacking mode and set up the game's opening try and eventually gave them the lead that won the game.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Burleigh, Osborne
Cons: Sopoaga 2
Pens: Sopoaga 7
For the Hurricanes:
Tries: Franks, Barrett 2
Cons: Barrett 2
Pens: Barrett 4
Yellow card: Jarrad Hoeata (Highlanders, 68 - repeated infringements, offside)
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Hurricanes: 15 Marty Banks, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Faifili Levave, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Jack Lam, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 John Schwalger, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson/Adam Hill, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Matt Proctor, 23 Andre Taylor.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Watt (New Zealand)