A hat-trick by Hosea Gear boosted the Hurricanes to a 44-21 bonus point victory over the Reds in Wellington.
The Reds have suffered numerous injuries this season, and despite a series of brave performances that included the scalps of the Crusaders, Bulls and Stormers, they look to be a spent force. The Canes on the other hand have saved their best rugby for the most important stage of the competition, and may yet sneak into the play-offs.
The hosts benefited from some defensive lapses in the wider channels with Cory Jane and Gear scoring in the first half. But their own defensive frailties were exposed in the opening 40 minutes as Will Genia and Quade Cooper broke the line at will.
The Reds were in ominous form with the trademark ball-in-hand approach gaining plenty of ground at close quarters. They were, however, outplayed at the breakdown, as the Canes managed to rip or steal the ball whenever the Reds entered the opposition 22.
While the Canes contested fiercely, their defence around the fringes was poor. Genia made them pay for their slack attitude after 18 minutes, gliding down the middle and firing a perfect pass to Scott Higginbotham in support. The Canes’ backline faltered nine minutes later, as a smart inside ball by Anthony Faingaa was perfectly offloaded to the uncatchable Rod Davies.
Faingaa was involved in the third try, breaking the line before handing the ball back to Cooper. The Reds flyhalf grubbered through for his team-mates to chase, and centre Will Chambers showcased his formidable toe in beating all the defenders to the line.
The Reds shot to a 21-8 lead, but failed to take control of the game. Their struggles at the lineout and flagging effort at the breakdown continued to cost them possession, and another defensive lapse right on the hooter allowed the Canes to strike back.
A penalty was taken quickly by Karl Lowe and in typical fashion, the Canes moved the ball upfield, weaving between bewildered Reds defenders. The visitors had the numbers advantage as Jane received the ball in the left hand corner, but the fullback changed his line smartly and found Gear with a good pass.
The Reds’ inexperience told during the important period before and after half-time. Openside Andrew Shaw was yellow-carded for a spear tackle, and the Canes made the visitors pay with two unanswered tries.
Gear scored his second after the Reds made a mistake on their own line, while a sublime exhibition of handling was beautifully finished by the smart-stepping Tamati Ellison. This score represented a remarkable turning of the tide, but it also ensured a valuable bonus point.
Cooper had an opportunity to reduce the deficit in the 55th minute, but pushed his penalty attempt wide. Momentum and luck was with the Canes, and the pressure translated into unforced handling errors by the Reds. Their inferior showing at the breakdown also robbed them of possession when they tried to keep it tight.
The hammer blow arrived when Ma’a Nonu busted through and found Aaron Cruden on the wrap-around. The Canes flyhalf fed Gear, and from 30m out, no one was going to stop the winger from claiming his hat-trick. A great touchline conversion by Weepu stretched the lead to 34-21, and the Reds didn’t have what it took to produce a Canes-like comeback.
The defeat means the Reds will need a few results to go their way if they’re going to make the semi-finals. Their inability to get a bonus point for the fourth try or for losing with seven points could prove costly as the Waratahs and Brumbies may surpass them on the log.
The Canes have kept their slim hopes alive, although they will also need some help if they are to qualify for the play-offs.
By Jon Cardinelli