The Hurricanes played the torrential conditions brilliantly to beat the Sharks 41-0 in the quarter-final in Wellington on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The unrelenting rain made for a wet ball and handling was a challenge for both sets of players. The swirling wind made life difficult for the goal-kickers, as Garth April missed three attempts and Beauden Barrett two.
The conditions should have helped the Sharks, a team that has played a more conservative and tactical game over the course of the 2016 season. The Sharks had the advantage of playing with the wind in the first stanza. And yet, after 40 minutes, they had not scored a single point.
The Hurricanes made a statement with this tactically superior performance. Their forwards, spearheaded by the irrepressible Ardie Savea, got stuck in at the collisions and breakdowns. TJ Perenara and Barrett took excellent options, with the latter kicking for territory more often than not.
The Sharks succumbed in challenging conditions. They lost the ball in contact. Their kicking out of hand was poor, as was their fielding of the high ball. Their defensive positioning and one-on-one tackling were shocking.
By contrast, the Hurricanes embraced the conditions. Barrett kicked the hosts into good field positions. From there, the Hurricanes made their attacking chances count.
The hosts' first try was a stunning example of the Hurricanes' accuracy and the Sharks' ineptitude. Barrett executed a great cross-kick, and Jason Woodward beat JP Pietersen in the air to reclaim possession. The Hurricanes took the ball through two more phases before prop Loni Uhila beat the defence to score.
Barrett produced another long, rolling kick in the 22nd minute to take play deep into Sharks territory. The visitors made a mistake at the lineout to hand the Hurricanes a scrum in a prime attacking position. Following a good Hurricanes shove, Perenara broke down the blindside and found James Marshall for the finish.
The Hurricanes maintained their momentum in the second stanza. Playing with the wind at their backs, they scored two tries inside the first 10 minutes. Again, the skill and intent of the Hurricanes were evident in the lead-up to those tries. Again, the Sharks' lack of physicality, desire and defensive solidity was apparent.
Perenara scored the Hurricanes' fifth try in the 60th minute. The hosts were on track for a massive victory. The Sharks were in danger of finishing the contest without registering a point.
The Hurricanes kept their defensive shape to deny the Sharks this consolation in the dying stages. This effort ensured that the Hurricanes claimed their biggest win against the Sharks, and marked the first time in history they have kept an opponent scoreless.
The Hurricanes will advance to the semi-finals and host a playoff at the Cake Tin next weekend. They may be forced to compete without their skipper Dane Coles, who left the field in the second half on Saturday with what looked like a serious injury.
Hurricanes – Tries: Loni Uhila, James Marshall, Jason Woodward, Vaea Fifita, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields. Conversions: Beauden Barrett (3), Woodward. Penalty: Barrett.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Loni Uhila.
Subs: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea.
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Odwa Ndungane.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images