The Hurricanes smashed the Highlanders 56-20 in Napier on Friday to win the New Zealand conference and earn a home semi-final. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The eight-try, bonus-point victory has taken the Hurricanes to an unassailable lead at the top of the Vodacom Super Rugby standings. With 62 points after 15 games, they cannot be surpassed, no matter what transpires in the remaining league games over the next two weeks.
This result also sees the Hurricanes claiming the New Zealand conference title for the first time. More importantly, their consistent performances over the league stage have earned them the right to host a semi-final, and should they progress, the final itself.
The Hurricanes were always expected to beat the Highlanders in this fixture, with the latter side resting so many of their All Blacks players. The degree of victory, however, was emphatic. The performance could be viewed as a fitting tribute to Hurricanes and All Blacks legend Jerry Collins, who passed away after a car accident on Friday.
The platform for this massive and indeed monumental victory was laid in the first 25 minutes. The Highlanders were competitive initially, as the 3-3 scoreline reflected. Unfortunately, they would lose their shape when they lost a man, flanker Gareth Evans, to the sin bin in the 12th minute. The Hurricanes would pile on 15 points in Evans' absence.
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett obliged with several great touches in his first game back from injury. Ardie Savea was in menacing form at the breakdown, and Julian Savea was just as powerful when he carried the ball.
The star of the show, however, was Nehe Milner-Skudder. While the winger didn't score a try of his own, he was influential in the buildup to several others. He beat the first defender regularly, and the offload he delivered to Blade Thomson for the game's first try was nothing short of genius.
The Hurricanes scored their fourth try, and banked the bonus point, in the 36th minute. After half-time, Julian Savea finished a well-worked attacking move, and then TJ Perenara claimed his second try of the night. The latter score saw the Hurricanes scrumhalf surpassing Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo for the most tries in the 2015 competition (10).
Ma'a Nonu came off the bench in the second half, and powered over for the Hurricanes' seventh try. The All Blacks centre would claim a second after taking a pass from Brad Shields and racing 40m to score.
While the Highlanders managed to score three tries of their own, they failed to obtain the all-important fourth and thus obtain a bonus point. The Hurricanes defended well in the dying stages to deny the Highlanders that consolation.
Hurricanes – Tries: Blade Thomson, James Marshall, TJ Perenara (2), Dane Coles, Julian Savea, Ma'a Nonu (2). Conversions: Marshall (5). Penalties: Marshall (2).
Highlanders – Tries: Ryan Tongia, Lima Sopoaga, Marty Banks. Conversion: Sopoaga. Drop goal: Sopoaga.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Blade Thomson, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Willis Halaholo, 23 Ma'a Nonu.
Highlanders – 15 Marty Banks, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Ryan Tongia, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 John Hardie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Scott Eade, 22 Shaun Treeby, 23 Kurt Baker.
Photo: Joel Ford/Getty Images