Highlanders have the 'attitude'
The Highlanders showed their true fighting spirit when they sneaked home 18-16 over the Hurricanes in their must-win Super Rugby derby.
The Highlanders showed their true fighting spirit when they sneaked home 18-16 over the Hurricanes in their must-win Super Rugby derby in Wellington on Friday.
The Hurricanes scored the only try in the tense, high-stakes battle, with the Highlanders relying on the boot of flyhalf Hayden Parker to get them home.
"It was one of those games where each team didn't want to give up much, so it was pretty tight," said Highlanders captain Ben Smith, who described the outcome as an "ugly" victory.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph pointed to his team's attitude as the real reason for hanging tough when the Hurricanes seemed destined to grab a late winner.
''In the last 10 minutes it came down to attitude," Joseph told a media gathering.
"But you can't just have attitude when you're playing against nine All Blacks,'' he added.
''I'm just really proud of the leaders.
"There was a try on for them [Hurricanes] right in the corner there that they looked as though they were going to score and who got across but the two [Highlanders] co-captains.
''When you see things like that happen then the other guys are going to follow.''
Joseph was also full of praise for his flyhalf, Parker, who landed five penalties and a match-winning drop-goal in the 64th minute in a flawless performance off the kicking tee.
''I'm very proud of Hayden," the coach said, adding: "It was a very big match for him. He has not played a hell of a lot of rugby at this level and last week was a very good introduction for him.
''But he came through it. He showed the calm, the cool and the composure many times. He did not look like a guy who had played only five or six games at this level.''
He was not thinking about the play-offs yet, but said the scars of last year - when they finished 14th on the standings - had produced this year's driven team.
''I'm proud of the team. Everyone learned a lot of lessons from last year. There was a lot of motivated young men. And the guys who have come in this year were really motivated to do well ... they may be no-ones to many people but they have all played a lot of rugby.''
Co-captain Nasi Manu said he knew the Hurricanes would try to ''muscle up'' in the forwards.
''I'm really proud of the boys' effort. It felt like we were defending most of that game ... at the start of the week we just said we had to front up and show some attitude,'' Manu said.
''It felt like we were always intact. When Hayden Parker got the dropkick over, we managed to hold on against them. He is a good director and really knows how to plug the corners.''
Next Saturday's match against the Crusaders was shaping up to be a big game and the players would be looking forward to it.
''These are the games the players want to be part of. At home, against the Crusaders. Thankfully, we have got an eight-day turnaround.''
For the Hurricanes there is a mountain to climb if they want to keep their Super Rugby title aspirations alive.
The Hurricanes are seventh on 31 points after the loss and one place out of the top-six play-offs positions, but are fourth in their conference and have played more games than the three New Zealand sides ahead of them.
The Hurricanes must win their remaining four games - most with bonus points - and rely on other results going their way to try to sneak in to the postseason.
The problem is that all of their remaining games are against New Zealand sides, starting with the conference-leading and defending-champion Chiefs next week.
"Yep. It's going to be tough for us from here," a dejected Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith told reporters.
"The team is gutted but ... come Wednesday when we get back together we'll get excited about the Chiefs ... and we will be pretty determined against a really good New Zealand side."
A try awarded in the 76th minute - that would have given the Hurricanes a 21-18 lead - was also over-ruled after a video review, with replacement hooker Ash Dixon costing his team dearly when he committed clear obstruction by taking out a defender to open the gap through which scrumhalf TJ Perenara sneaked.
"To be honest, technically it was the right call but you could look at every ruck in the game and that would happen," Smith said.
Smith and coach Mark Hammett felt there were still positives to take from the loss but, more than likely, face another mid-table finish or worse.
Eleventh last year, the Hurricanes' last play-offs were in 2009, and Hammett has failed to lift a talent-laden team above eighth position since launching a big clean-out upon taking the reins in 2011.
"You're annoyed you lose a game. It's just tough to take that it all comes down to a little thing like that," Smith said.
"But to be fair that's what seasons come down to - little things like that."