JON CARDINELLI reports on the Highlanders’ 13-6 win against the Hurricanes in a rain-affected game in Invercargill.
Both teams went into this clash with a premeditated approach that didn’t suit the conditions. Another shocking day in New Zealand made for difficult handing and thus limited the pace of the game, but that didn’t stop the Highlanders and Hurricanes from trying to attack from deep. With the pitch saturated and the ball resembling a bar of soap, it was tantamount to rugby suicide.
The Highlanders were the first to switch tactics after both teams had botched a series of scoring opportunities. The high bomb caused problems for the Hurricanes’ back three, who proceeded to spill the ball and concede metres when the advancing Highlanders swooped on possession.
It was an inspired touch by Jimmy Cowan and an important finish by Ben Smith that saw the Highlanders earning some reward for their first-half dominance. Cowan popped a perfectly weighted kick over the ruck for Smith to chase. A further Hurricanes transgression allowed Lima Sopoaga to nail a penalty and stretch the hosts’ lead to seven.
Handling mistakes in the shape of knock-ons and wayward lineout feeds continued into the second stanza, but the Highlanders got it right by playing the game deep in Hurricanes territory. Sopoaga kicked a difficult three-pointer to extend the advantage, and given the context of the match as well as the conditions, it was a formidable lead.
The Hurricanes by contrast tried to force the linebreak, and didn’t kick as accurately as their opponents. So competitive at the breakdown in the first half, they were outplayed by the hungrier Highlanders in the second.
They turned down a kickable penalty in the 73rd minute when they were only seven points adrift, and were made to regret it. The Highlanders produced a terrific defensive effort from point blank range, and subsequently forced the turnover.
During this period of play, Highlanders wing Kade Poki stuck a hand in the path of a Hurricanes pass, an act that killed the visitors’ attack when they had men to spare out wide. Referee Vinny Munro didn’t view the knock-on as cynical, and not for the first time in the game, the Hurricanes were denied a try.
They had one final crack at the line, but it was to no avail. Poor Hurricanes composure and gritty Highlanders defence combined to give the hosts a scrappy but valuable win.