In the first two weeks the Hurricanes looked as though they were making a habit of losing close games but on Friday they confirmed that the trend has been reversed as they scraped to a 23-19 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Highlanders at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
There wasn’t much in the game, with the Hurricanes dominating the early stages before the Highlanders came back to shade the middle stages. Sadly for the hosts, however, they couldn’t make the pressure translate into points, and on the night the Hurricanes’ defence was just that little bit better than that of their opponents.
The intensity of the Hurricanes’ tackling accounted for the fact they were able to score three tries to one against a Highlanders team that perhaps lacked a bit of confidence after two opening defeats. The hosts seemed to be overcoming that and gaining a bit of composure in the third quarter, and they arguably produced their best rugby of the season as they forged into a 19-17 lead with 23 minutes to go.
At that stage they were enjoying a lot of possession and territory, but a combination of mistakes on attack and their inferior scrumming and thus inability to set an attacking platform to strike from let them down. The Hurricanes had finished strongly in previous weeks and they did so again, with the visitors playing themselves back into the Highlanders’ half and profiting through two penalties kicked by Beauden Barrett.
Barrett probably won’t be remembering the Highlanders' try with any great fondness. Hosea Gear ran right over him as the Highlanders struck from an attacking scrum five minutes from half-time, with that score giving them a 13-12 lead at the break that they should have been happy with after being under the kosh early on.
The Hurricanes enjoyed all the ball and early ascendancy in the territory battle, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when after eight minutes a 13 phase build-up led to a try to Conrad Smith. The Highlanders had in fact done well to hold the Hurricanes up just short of the left corner, but Aaron Smith came out of line in defence and the Hurricanes captain took a short pass from the loose-scrum and powered over.
The Highlanders started to find their feet after that, a Colin Slade penalty making it 5-3 after quarter of an hour and then announcing their intentions with a 17 phase attack that eventually resulted in a penalty that Slade kicked to make it 6-5 after 28 minutes. The Highlanders were starting to find some efficiency, although they weren’t as good at protecting ball as they would have liked, and they struggled to get the ball back from the recycles with the necessary alacrity.
The Highlanders were guilty on the night of conceding points immediately after almost every occasion they scored points, and it was three minutes later that prop Ben Franks scored a try in the corner where he contemptuously and spectacularly bumped off Ben Smith in the manner that Julian Savea had Israel Dagg in the previous week’s game. The try came off a sweep to the left in which Victor Vito created the necessary thrust with a break before passing outside to Franks.
The third Hurricanes try should never have been scored and was ultimately the reason that the Highlanders lost the match. Helped by the knowledge he had a penalty advantage to work with, Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara muscled and swiveled his way through a host of Highlanders defenders close to the line to score a try that was greeted with a sense of shock by the home fans.
The Highlanders had been leading 16-12 and looked to be cruising into control as they piled on the pressure in the second half, but that try sent out the message that it probably wasn’t going to be the Highlanders’ night.
After being on the losing end in the opening match thriller against the Chiefs and then on the receiving end in the shock of the tournament last weekend, it now looks a long way back for a Highlanders team that in the past has started well before falling away. Like the Stormers, they are going to have to do it the other way around in 2013.
Highlanders – Try: Hosea Gear. Conversion: Colin Slade. Penalties: Colin Slade (4).
Hurricanes – Tries: Conrad Smith, Ben Franks, TJ Perenara. Conversion: Beauden Barrett (1). Penalties: Beauden Barrett (2).