Rugby: Highlanders hold out Hurricanes

Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders on the attack during the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Photo by Getty
Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders on the attack during the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Photo by Getty

And just like that, the pressure is back on the Hurricanes.

After opening their Super Rugby campaign with three losses, they kept the knockers at bay for a brief period with a 60-27 destruction of the Cheetahs last weekend but they were brought back to reality as the Highlanders knocked them over 35-31 in Dunedin tonight.

As has been a problem for most of the season, the Hurricanes fell off plenty of tackles, made basic errors and looked stunted on attack.

Coach Mark Hammett has been in the firing line from the Hurricanes' faithful this season and there's no reason to think the blowtorch won't be applied to him and his management team again in the coming week as they look to get their season on track.

Considering the Crusaders are on the agenda next, things won't get any easier for the Hurricanes, who have problems across the board but never seem to look completely out of the games they play.

Halfback Chris Smylie was a late scratching for the Hurricanes tonight, which was a tough blow for the visitors given the veteran No 9 had looked sharp against the Cheetahs last week but his withdrawal presented a chance for TJ Perenara to redeem himself after an indifferent start to the year.

The halfback did have a hand in a late Hurricanes try with a deft offload, although his kicking and option-taking are still areas of concern.

Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa has been a revelation this season after spending 2013 as a full-time training partner at the Blues.

The Tongan-born speedster has looked dangerous on attack all year and delivered a thunderous hit on his opposite number Conrad Smith early in the second spell.

A forgettable first half, that was dominated by penalty goals, was quickly put to bed in the second stanza when Highlanders second-five Phil Burleigh bagged a five-pointer in the 50th minute after some phenomenal work from Highlanders fullback Ben Smith.

Smith was one of the best on show during the game and must be planting some thoughts in to the mind of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen ahead of the June tests.

Smith's vision and ability to find his way through gaps, while also holding the ball up in the tackle are a fine mix of skills, while he is also astute under the high ball.

When Hurricanes midfielder Hadleigh Parkes threw a pass, which was intercepted by rampaging wing Patrick Osborne mid-way through the second half, the Highlanders eased out to a 35-12 advantage.

Late tries to Ben Franks and Beauden Barrett (two) saw the Hurricanes claw their way back in to the contest but it wasn't enough to see them pull off a comeback win as they dropped their fourth contest of the campaign.

Despite missing a dolly of a penalty goal in the early stages, Lima Sopoaga, a Wellington born, raised and educated five-eighth, had an absolute bumper evening off the kicking tee and he eventually landed nine from 10, including seven conversions and two penalties.


Highlanders 35 (Phil Burleigh, Patrick Osborne tries; Lima Sopoaga 7 pen, 2 con) Hurricanes 31 (Beauden Barrett 2, Ben Franks tries; Barrett 4 pen, 2 con) Halftime: 18-9


Still going nowhere fast

It nearly made me cry the sight of a damn good defence this weekend compared to the poor effort against the Force last week, you wonder how a team can be so different over 7 days.

But once again  the back three were under-utilized because we do not have a centre who knows how to pass, or even off-load. Young Malakai is getting great reviews for his defence and hard running, but very little is happening when he goes to ground with the ball. Unfortunately this is common across all Kiwi teams (obviously the Hurricanes excluded) and must be a worry for the All Blacks post Conrad Smith.

And the Highlanders management need to wake-up - why substitute just for the sake of rotation, it contributed to the loss to the Force and gave the Canes a way in this weekend when we stopped taking it to them after Aaron Smith (on fire this season) and Lima Sopoanga (having a good all-round game) were subbed off with nearly 20 minutes left - I know he is an Otago lad but Hayden Parker is not up to Super rugby standard; his drop attempt should never have been tried when we had the ball and the Canes were desperate for it, he allowed the Force to shepherd him wide when he took the last try and then missed the standard conversion at this level to earn the draw, and even at NPC level he choked/froze during the Shield defence against Hawkes Bay missing numerous shots at goal.