You wouldn’t have heard too many dissenters in New Zealand when Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith, speaking after his team’s 18-12 defeat to the Reds in Brisbane, described it as “one of the strangest matches I’ve ever played in.”
It was that, and Smith also won’t be alone in being confused about how his team lost it. Seldom has a team been as dominant in the last quarter hour as the Hurricanes were without managing to pull it through, and twice in that period the Canes were over the line only to be denied by refereeing calls.
It won’t ease Smith’s disappointment that both calls were correct. In the first, the assistant referee ruled that a foot was put on the touchline as the Hurricanes scored from a lineout near the Reds' line. And then a little while later the TMO needed to be consulted with Smith himself appeared to have gone through to touch down behind the posts with less than five minutes to go.
The conversion would have been from in front so if it had been awarded the Hurricanes would surely have won the game as the Reds looked out on their feet. The Hurricanes thought they had the try and retreated to halfway, but referees are now allowed to go back a couple of phases in a try-scoring movement before making a ruling, and that was what happened on this occasion.
And there it was, a small knock-on from a Hurricanes substitute, and the try was disallowed. The Hurricanes tried again after that, and continued to camp in the Reds' territory right up until the final whistle. But apart from referee Steve Walsh, who the Hurricanes clearly struggled to understand in the second half, there were other things against the Hurricanes, such as the slipperiness of the ball courtesy of the Brisbane humidity.
And there were repeated occasions when the Hurricanes just let themselves down by failing to hold onto the final pass, with a knock-on near the Reds line in the 80th minute effectively representing the Hurricanes’ last opportunity to steal the victory.
The pre-match predictions were that the Reds would have an edge because this was their third match against the Hurricanes’ second, and they proved quite accurate in that the Hurricanes probably paid for their slow start. It took them nine minutes to get their first proper touch of the ball, although they were on the board almost immediately through a penalty from flyhalf Beauden Barrett.
Quade Cooper responded in the third minute to make 3-all and then the Reds took the lead in the eighth minute with another kick as Walsh’s whistle dominated the proceedings. The sequence of penalties continued three minutes later when Barrett brought the scores level again, but in a competition of narrow margins, it may well be the Hurricanes No 10 who will be blamed as much as Walsh and misfortune if this result is what separates the Wellington team from the playoffs.
Barrett hadn’t missed all season and the commentators noted this as he lined up his next easily kickable attempt, but it went flying away to the right in the manner of a golf drive that has been mishit. That poor kick appeared to gnaw at Barrett’s confidence, for he hit the post with another kickable attempt before finally raising the flags and re-establishing a three point lead in the 20th minute.
It wasn’t the end of Barrett’s kicking woes though, and he missed a few more that could have made a difference to the result in such a close game. If the Hurricanes had only been trailing by three points in the last quarter instead of by six, it might have had a big impact on the way the Reds defended as well as what the Hurricanes did with their territorial dominance in terms of option taking.
The Reds scored two tries to nil, with the first coming in the 24th minute as flat passing going to the blindside from a forward build-up near the Hurricanes line enabled Digby Ioane to accelerate through a couple of defenders for one of those spectacular old wing tries you don’t see so much of any more. Cooper was wide with the conversion, and the Reds led only 11-9 at halftime, but they were never headed again in the match.
Rob Simmonds scored his first try in his 51st Super Rugby match after halftime to make it 18-9 and condemn the Hurricanes to a catch-up role in the game. They gradually started to put it together and build their momentum, and by the end they had all the momentum, but they just couldn’t get the points they needed and weren’t helped by some of Walsh’s calls when they were on attack.
It was the first time in a couple of seasons that the Hurricanes completed a match without scoring a try and it was also the first time since 2011, and only the second time in the last 10 meetings, that the Reds were able to beat them.
Reds – Tries: Digby Ioane, Rob Simmons. Conversion: Quade Cooper. Penalties: Quade Cooper (2).
Hurricanes – Penalties: Beauden Barrett (4).