It was like the old days of Vodacom Super Rugby in Wellington on Saturday as the Highlanders edged out the Hurricanes 49-44 in a match that saw some great tries and 93 points spread across the two teams.
There was a time when just about every Super Rugby match was like this one. It was what used to get the goat of the great English rugby writer Stephen Jones – although this time you would stop short of saying that it was like basketball, which was the charge in the old Super 12 days back in the 1990s.
There were 11 tries across the match, with the Hurricanes scoring six to five, which meant someone crossed the line on average more often than every eight minutes and certainly those who want to see tries scored would be raving about this one.
The Highlanders deserved the win because they showed greater hunger and determination over the 80 minutes against a Hurricanes team that lacked sharpness at the start and was duly punished.
Although the Hurricanes enjoyed the advantage in territory and possession, and had to make far fewer tackles than their opponents, it was they who trailed by a wide margin at the break, with the visitors opening up an impressive 32-13 lead.
The Hurricanes just struggled with the basics in that first half, with the lineout not functioning 100%, and there being far too few opportunities for the Hurricanes to set up a platform for attack.
Although they had the advantage in the battle for territory, they had too few benefits of a put-in within the strike-zone.
The Highlanders had shown some great flair and skill at stages of the previous week’s game against the Crusaders when they had nothing to lose, and it was a similar story in the first half, with some of the four tries coming from movements that started deep inside their own territory.
Wings Hosea Gear and Kade Poki had their opportunities, and they made the most of them, and overall the Highlanders’ attacking game was just more accurate than that of the Hurricanes.
You wouldn’t have anticipated what was to come in the first 10 minutes, when the two flyhalves, Colin Slade for the Highlanders and Beauden Barrett, traded penalties for a 3-all deadlock.
The Hurricanes even took the lead in the 13th minute when Barrett kicked a penalty to make it 6-3, but that was the last time the home team had any kind of advantage.
On the quarter-hour mark the Highlanders won possession inside their own half and the breaking of the initial tackle line left the Hurricanes' defence in disarray, with the Highlanders exploiting it with a long-range strike that saw prop Tony Woodcock carry the ball to close to the Hurricanes' line before offloading to Mose Tuiaili’I to score.
A good grubber kick from Slade four minutes later evaded Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara, and Tamati Ellison exploited the mistake to score a try that put the Highlanders into a commanding 17-6 lead.
A penalty from Slade and a try from Aaron Smith then put the Highlanders into a 27-6 lead which would have had many thinking the match was wrapped up.
But the Hurricanes fought back a couple of times, most notably halfway through the second half, when two quick-fire tries cut what had been a 35-13 advantage into a 35-27 one, only for some sloppy defence from the Hurricanes to allow the Highlanders in for two converted tries that made it 49-27.
That was the cue though for another Hurricanes' fightback, and when a yellow card reduced the Highlanders to 14 men for the last six minutes, and a Barrett penalty reduced the deficit to just five, it meant the Highlanders had to dig deep to resist the Hurricanes' comeback.
They did it by retaining possession impressively through a four-minute period where the ball never travelled much more than a metre or two as the Highlanders kept themselves in a gridlock that just wouldn’t allow the Hurricanes any sniff of possession.
Finally they did release it, with less than two minutes to go, and the Hurricanes had the benefit of a put-in to a set scrum.
However the Hurricanes were too slow in getting players to a tackle ball near the Highlanders' line and the defending team won a penalty that sent big Brad Thorn, the Highlanders captain, into waves of ecstatic celebration.
Hurricanes – Tries: Ash Dixon, Ben Franks, Julian Savea, James Broadhurst, Chris Smylie. Conversions: Beauden Barrett (5). Penalties: Barrett (3).
Highlanders– Tries: Mose Tuiali`i, Tamati Ellison, Aaron Smith, Kade Poki, Hosea Gear, Elliot Dixon. Conversions: Colin Slade (3), Hayden Parker (2). Penalties: Slade (3).