The chase to catch the Crusaders and Blues at the summit of the Super Rugby Aotearoa table took an interesting turn on Sunday as the Hurricanes toppled the Highlanders to close the gap on the leading pack.
The hard-fought 17-11 victory represents a considerable turnaround in fortunes for the Wellingtonians, who stuttered to an 0-2 start to the domestic league following defeats to the Blues and Crusaders.
Jordie Barrett’s return at fullback spurred them on to victory against the Chiefs last week, and the young All Blacks utility was again involved in his side’s fortunes as they overtook the Highlanders in third place on the standings.
After halfback TJ Perenara stood up his opposite and All Blacks teammate Aaron Smith with a cheeky show-and-go from close range to score the match’s first try near the half hour mark, Barrett splintered the Highlanders’ defence with a well-angled run off a set move.
The 23-year-old then flun a looping ball out wide to in-form South African wing Kobus van Wyk, who fought off a couple of defenders to dot down in the corner and hand the Hurricanes a 12-0 lead going into the sheds.
That lead could have been more extensive were it not for the extremely blustery conditions at Sky Stadium, which mitigated Barrett’s goal kicking prowess that was on show in Hamilton last week.
Highlanders first-five Mitch Hunt also fell victim to the very strong breeze off the tee, but it was the running game of the playmaker that really caught the eye.
Had it not been for the questionable obstruction call ruled on Ash Dixon inside the first five minutes of the contest, Hunt would have set up Smith for a scintillating try under the posts as he sliced the opposition apart from well inside his own half.
The southerners would rightfully have been rueing referee Brendon Pickerill’s decision to deny the co-captain’s impressive long range effort, but the cards fell in the visitors’ favour shortly afterwards after a Hurricanes try was cancelled out in similar circumstances.
A block on Shannon Frizell by Devan Flanders opened up a plethora of space for Ngani Laumape to exploit and score from in the sixth minute, but Pickerill overturned his initial decision after a raft of replays highlighted the loose forward’s indiscretion.
It was the ball-carrying dominance of the home side’s forward pack that proved to be vital in their victory, though, as was evidenced in Flanders’ try in the opening few minutes of the second half.
That showing of patience and physicality on attack deep in Highlanders’ territory brought the Hurricanes out to a 17-0 lead, but the away side slowly started to work their way back into the battle.
It only took four minutes for the spotlight to be cast on a refereeing decision from the Hurricanes' clash with the Highlanders in Wellington.https://t.co/aJPJhXAEVK
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 12, 2020
A penalty by Hunt was soon followed by a well-taken try off a lineout to Smith, who worked well with Dixon to take advantage of a short-side overlap close to the Hurricanes’ tryline.
It was the decision by Asafo Aumua to join the maul to combat the Highlanders’ powerful efforts up front that allowed that try to be scored, but the Hurricanes hooker was arguably the standout player in the fixture.
Usually a back-up to Dane Coles in the franchise’s pecking order, the two-match All Black took his rare starting opportunity superbly with his grunt on both sides of the ball.
Josh Dickson’s absence from the Highlanders’ forward pack didn’t help the Highlanders’ efforts to nullify the threat posed by Aumua, but the exploits of Smith and Hunt will have pleased nonetheless.
Hunt’s newfound form will be of particular intrigue come next week when the franchise welcomes back All Blacks pivot Josh Ioane from injury, creating a selection dilemma for the No. 10 jersey.
Perhaps a shift to fullback for Hunt in the place of Michael Collins could be the solution to accommodate both him and Ioane, but it’s a much-welcomed selection headache for head coach Aaron Mauger.
His side have now slid to fourth spot on the overall standings with a 1-3 record in the opening half of the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, and will look to re-build when they take on the Chiefs in Hamilton next week.
As for the Hurricanes, their attention will need to shift quickly to the next task at hand: the much-daunted trip to Christchurch to take on the unbeaten Crusaders.
Hurricanes 17 (Tries to TJ Perenara, Kobus van Wyk and Devan Flanders; conversion to Jordie Barrett)
Highlanders 11 (Try to Aaron Smith; 2 penalties to Mitch Hunt)
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