Ardie Savea scored an 80th-minute try as the Hurricanes snatched a 27-20 win over the Highlanders in Wellington on Friday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
When these sides met in the second week of the competition, the Highlanders clinched a narrow one-point win, but this time around the Canes had their revenge. In fact, only one of the last 16 games between these teams has been decided by more than the value of a converted try, with each team accruing eight wins in that span, and again very little separated them on Friday.
Yet it would be the Canes who controlled proceedings late in the game and launched a final onslaught that eventually enabled Savea to burst over for the match-winning try as the Highlanders' defence finally gave way.
Although rainy weather in Wellington unfortunately turned this highly-anticipated game into a bit of a scrap, with a fair amount of kicking, few can deny that the Canes were worthy winners in the end as they adapted best to the tricky conditions.
The Highlanders had the better of the exchanges early on, enjoying over 70% of possession and territory, but against the run of play the Hurricanes broke out through Cory Jane, and Savea was eventually able to dart over for the opening try.
It signalled a clear momentum shift as the Canes began to assert their authority on proceedings, and after some impressive buildup play, flank Brad Shields burst over under the posts.
With the Hurricanes suddenly 14-0 to the good, it was key for the visitors to strike next, and they did just that as Malakai Fekitoa and Patrick Osborne provided some gainline go-forward before Lima Sopoaga ghosted over to score.
Despite the rain beginning to fall and making conditions slippery underfoot, both sides remained full of running in an enthralling opening half, but it was the Canes who looked to have adjusted to conditions better.
Against expectations, as illustrated by SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, the Canes actually put the most kicks in play (24 to 19), while they applied plenty of pressure with a physical and accurate defence. By contrast, the Landers slipped 15 tackles and conceded 12 turnovers.
The Canes would also have the final say in the half as Beauden Barrett slotted a penalty to push his side into a handy and deserved 17-7 lead at the break.
However, the Highlanders made the perfect start to the second half when prop Daniel Lienert-Brown barged over the tryline just a couple of minutes after the restart, while Sopoaga then drew the scores level with his first penalty of the night.
After controlling proceedings for the majority of the opening half, the Canes would have wondered how it was suddenly all square. Barrett and Marty Banks then traded a penalty each as the scores remained deadlocked heading into the final 17 minutes of play.
Barrett first had an opportunity to win the match with a 75th-minute penalty, but the kick sailed wide. The Canes would not be denied, though, as Savea powered over for his second try with the final play of the game.
Hurricanes – Tries: Ardie Savea (2), Brad Shields. Conversions: Beauden Barrett (3). Penalties: Barrett (2).
Highlanders – Tries: Lima Sopoaga, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Conversions: Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga, Marty Banks.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Vince Aso, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeff To'omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Lonu Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ngani Laumape, 23 Jason Woodward.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images