The Highlanders survived a second-half surge from the Hurricanes to win 17-16 on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
Last year's finalists were both coming off opening-round losses in this year's competition, with the Highlanders having been upset 33-31 by the Blues and the Hurricanes suffering a humiliating 52-10 defeat to the Brumbies.
When Beauden Barrett kicked a 62nd-minute penalty to give the Canes a 16-14 lead, all the momentum was with the visitors. But the Highlanders showed their champion qualities by getting back to the other end of the field and putting their opponents under huge pressure. While the hosts were twice denied a try by the officials, they were eventually rewarded with a 75th-minute penalty that replacement Hayden Parker coolly slotted.
With a minute to go, the Canes counter-attacked from deep but fullback Jason Woodward bizarrely opted to kick for touch. The Highlanders won the lineout and booted the ball into the stands at the first opportunity.
The champions will be relieved to have come away with the four log points. The Hurricanes had 56% of the possession, made 464 running metres compared to the hosts' 285, and won eight turnovers, with Ardie Savea doing well to slow down opposition ball. But poor finishing and 14 handling errors cost the Canes dearly.
The visitors made a good start to the match when Barrett kicked an early penalty, but the Highlanders hit back with a patient attack that resulted in a try for Malakai Fekitoa. Lima Sopoaga's conversion attempt came off the upright, but the flyhalf made no mistake with a penalty soon after.
The Canes had 65% of the ball during the first quarter but handling errors prevented them from capitalising on it, including one when they had a three-on-one overlap. Barrett, though, clawed three points back to make it 8-6 after 20 minutes.
Sopoaga kicked another penalty late in the first half, with Barrett's attempt early in the second going wide.
The Canes flyhalf almost made amends when he glided through a gap to take play deep inside the hosts' 22. The ball went wide to Marshall but he was bundled into touch in the right-hand corner.
The Highlanders then worked their way up to the other end of the field, with Patrick Osborne bouncing off Cory Jane. But the Canes' defence held out and would have been relieved to concede just three points, from another penalty, rather than seven.
It took the visitors 55 minutes to finally round off an attack when, after 16 phases, TJ Perenara darted over from a ruck for a converted try that made it 14-13.
The Canes almost struck again when Woodward kicked a grubber down the right-hand touchline, but Sopoaga reached the ball first. From the 5m scrum, Barrett's cross-kick was collected by Julian Savea on the left wing but Fekitoa did superbly well to hold up him up over the line. In the end, the visitors had to settle for a Barrett penalty that gave them a 16-14 lead.
However, the Highlanders soon regained the ascendancy. Fekitoa thought he had scored his second try when he appeared to place the ball against the base of the post. The TMO, though, ruled that he had been just short, resulting in a 5m scrum for the hosts. Aaron Smith then broke away from the set piece and passed inside to Liam Squire, who dived over. Once again, though, the try was denied, with the referee calling a forward pass.
But the hosts did regain the lead when Parker slotted a penalty with five minutes to go and held on for an important win.
Highlanders – Try: Malakai Fekitoa. Penalties: Lima Sopoaga (3), Hayden Parker.
Hurricanes – Try: TJ Perenara. Conversion: Beauden Barrett. Penalties: Barrett (3).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Mark Abbott, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Leni Apisai, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Jason Woodward, 23 Willis Halaholo.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images