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Hurricanes hold off Highlanders in dour Super Rugby Pacific clash

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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The Highlanders remain winless in Super Rugby Pacific after falling to the Hurricanes 21-14 in dire encounter at Sky Stadium in Wellington on Saturday.

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Despite enjoying a swathe of possession in the opening half, the Highlanders were let down badly by the execution of their players, whose ill-discipline and skillset kept them scoreless at the half-time break.

Too many times the ball hit the deck or sailed forward from a pass, and too often did they give away penalties that shouldn’t have been conceded.

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Their best try-scoring opportunity in the opening half was reflective of this, when a deft no-look pass by halfback Folau Fakatava put wing Liam Coombes-Fabling into a gaping hole deep inside Hurricanes territory.

After being mowed down just shy of the tryline, the Highlanders had a significant overlap of players on the right-hand side, and the ball eventually made its way out there and into the hands of fullback Connor Garden-Bachop.

He had wing Sam Gilbert unmarked on his outside, but Gilbert instead opted to run a cut line, forcing Garden-Bachop to take contact when a draw and pass would have sufficed and probably have put their side on the board.

The supporting Shannon Frizell then scooped the ball up and tried to cross the line in the face of the swarming Hurricanes defenders, but conceded an infringement by crawling on the ground when he needed to release the ball.

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Situations like those, as well as Mitch Hunt’s two missed penalty goals and a wayward bomb that was kicked into touch on the full – plus a sloppy piece of play from a Hurricanes kick in the backfield by Coombes-Fabling – would have left boss Tony Brown frustrated with his team’s efforts.

That will be because they had a whopping 61 percent of the first half ball and no points to show for it, and while the Hurricanes were hardly at their best, they still managed to pull the trigger when given the chance to do so via prop Pouri Rakete-Stones.

That handed the hosts a 7-0 buffer at half-time, which could have been more had fullback Jordie Barrett not hit the post from close range early on, and had they taken full advantage of a mismatch with ball in hand rather than putting boot to ball late in the half.

Perhaps the only first half positive for the Highlanders was the powerful ball-carrying of midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen, who lived up to the media hype generated of him earlier in the week.

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However, not even he could stop the Hurricanes from extending their lead early in the second half, when Jason Holland’s men capitalised on a Bailyn Sullivan line break to send Billy Proctor over for his side’s second try.

The heartache continued for the visitors shortly afterwards when Coombes-Fabling coughed the ball up cold with the tryline begging while in acres of space from a Marty Banks cross-kick deep inside enemy territory.

The debutant wing then couldn’t convert from close range as Julian Savea’s goal line defence prevented him from cashing in, but a follow-up effort by reserve lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit was enough to register the first Highlanders points of the evening.

The southerners then continued to dominate possession, but couldn’t make it count, as exemplified by Garden-Bachop’s kick out on the full, and some poor decision-making following an Umaga-Jensen line break.

Reserve utility back Scott Gregory went close to scoring a second try, but was held up over the line, and they were soon made to pay for their lack of execution.

Debutant halfback Logan Henry cross as the match entered its final 10 minutes to push the Hurricanes to a 14-point lead, but a rare glimpse of continuity and ruthless edge saw the Highlanders crash over not long afterwards through lock Josh Dickson.

That was as good as it got for the southerners, though, as the Hurricanes kept them at bay to close out what was a dour encounter in which both sides will be eager to improve ahead of next week’s round of matches.

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