A faulty captain’s referral made Dane Coles the hero of the Hurricanes’ 41-22 comeback win against the Highlanders in Wellington on Friday.
Gameflow: The Hurricanes and Highlanders wrapped up their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaigns in this dead rubber at the Cake Tin. The Highlanders advanced into a 17-7 lead in the first quarter behind the shield of a plan aimed at dangling run-bait at the Hurricanes counter-attack. It manifested itself in long kicks downtown that the likes of Ruben Love, Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea couldn’t resist running back.
The resultant errors and penalties gave the visitors field position and possession and they converted this into two tries, despite flyhalf Mitch Hunt following Canes skipper Dane Coles to the sin-bin in the first quarter.
The plan worked deep into the first half when the Highlanders’ handling errors began to wax and their appetite for kick-chase waned, a problem compounded by a captain’s referral blowing up in Ash Dixon’s face when the review found the Highlanders guilty and Coles and Jordie Barrett combined for 10 points to bring the Hurricanes within two at half-time.
The Canes switched gears in the second half, almost doubling their tackle count in the third quarter as the Highlanders hogged possession. The change was immediate as the pendulum swung decisively towards the hosts with centre Ngani Laumape and flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi dotting down after the restart before replacement loose forward Brayden Iose and winger Salesi Rayasi combined for tries in the final 20.
CAUTION – Hazardous Material: While the jury is still out on the application of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s trial of a captain’s referral system, the Highlanders can now attest to the dangers of asking the ref to look at an incident.
Ash Dixon thought he’d caught his opposite number red-handed when he referred an incident to Ben O’Keeffe. But the ref exonerated Dane Coles and reversed his original penalty decision after spotting Highlanders flanker Billy Harmon tripping the Canes captain.
Coles scored from the ensuing attacking lineout, sparking the Hurricanes’ comeback. And the referral system again impacted the contest early in the second half when O’Keeffe cancelled Highlanders winger Sam Gilbert’s try in the corner after Coles referred the build-up for closer inspection.
Run of Play: A scrum penalty against Canes tighthead Tyrel Lomax put the visitors into an early 3-0 lead courtesy of Mitch Hunt.
The hosts hit back with a try from kick receipt as No 8 Devan Flanders dotted down after some fine handling in the trams by Dane Coles and Du’Plessis Kirifi, and Jordie Barrett converted (7-3).
The high-tempo contest took a long breather as referee Ben O’Keeffe agonised over a scuffle between Coles and Hunt before sending both to the cooler for 10 minutes.
The Highlanders put the penalty into touch and then targeted the Canes’ depleted pack with No 8 Kazuki Himeno featured in a series of pick-and-goes that resulted in Josh Dickson crashing over for the try and a 10-7 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
Coles and Hunt returned but O’Keeffe continued to raise his arm against the Canes and the consequent field position saw Jona Nareki strike from an attacking lineout, with Hunt adding the extras to stretch the Highlanders lead to 10 points.
Coles was involved in another off-the-ball incident and Ash Dixon quickly used his captain’s referral to concentrate O’Keeffe on the matter. But it backfired spectacularly on the visitors when the ref cleared the Hurricanes hooker, penalising Highlanders flanker Billy Harmon for tripping and, from the ensuing lineout, Coles powered across the line to cut the deficit to 17-12.
And when Barrett chipped an easy penalty the Highlanders headed in for a sip and a nibble wondering how they might explain having allowed the Hurricanes right back into the game.
There was no time to think after the restart as Ngani Laumape chipped and regathered to score. Barrett converted and the Hurricanes climbed into a 22-17 lead, an advantage that appeared to have been immediately negated by Highlanders winger Sam Gilbert scoring in the right corner, but Coles referred it to O’Keeffe and the try was called back for a knock on in the build up.
The Highlanders continued to reap dividends from their kicking game as Julian Savea whiffed at a contestables that put the visitors on the attack. But sloppy handling and slow reaction to clean saw Du’Plessis Kirifi get in on the ball and force a turnover.
The Canes pushed up the price from the ensuing lineout as Love cut the line with a show and go and Kirifi, in close support, took the inside pass for a try and a 29-17 lead with 25 to go.
Dixon called it a night at the end of the third quarter, but not before rumbling across the line from a lineout drive that brought the Highlanders back within seven.
But Hurricanes halfback Cam Roigard countered with five minutes to go, making metres from a scrum and bumping off Aaron Smith to feed fellow bench-warmer Brayden Iose for the try. And Salesi Rayasi sealed the win, shrugging off Nehe Milner-Skudder – the fit-again All Blacks dynamo on debut for the Highlanders – to streak away for a 41-22 victory.