Highlanders not quite over the line

Highlanders prop Jermaine Ainsley carries the ball as replacement centre Fetuli Paea watches...
Highlanders prop Jermaine Ainsley carries the ball as replacement centre Fetuli Paea watches during their Super Rugby Pacific match at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
For once it was the Highlanders’ opponent that could not finish.

Had the Hurricanes executed on their chances, Saturday’s game at Forsyth Barr Stadium could have been out of the Highlanders’ reach after 20 minutes.

It was not enough to save the hosts.

But it certainly kept them in the game until the dying moments, the team having taken the lead with 15 minutes to play.

A late try to Hurricanes reserve Aidan Morgan denied them a spirited comeback win, the visitors emerging 22-21 victors.

Saula Ma’u went within inches of a match-winning try after a long build-up in the final play of the game, but the Highlanders prop was deemed to have been held up on review.

The Hurricanes should never have let it be that close.

Twice in the opening 15 minutes they squandered what should have been certain tries to a rampaging Julian Savea — a bad pass and a dropped ball over the line the culprits.

A third chance also went begging when Jordie Barrett could not hold on to a kick 5m out.

When lock Josh Dickson was sent from the field after 20 minutes for a reckless shoulder to the head, the Highlanders had done well to trail just 7-3.

Winger Salesi Rayasi cut through the defence off the lineout from the ensuing penalty to make it 14-3.

It ended a 20-minute spell in which the Highlanders were forced to tackle, often on the back foot.

Savea made several runs, swatting away defenders, in a reminder of the form that made him among the world’s best at the 2015 World Cup.

All too often the Highlanders were beaten in the collision, unable to handle the offload, or left chasing the visitors’ dangerous outside backs out wide.

However, they worked their way back.

Their energy lifted throughout the 20 minutes they played with 14 men and they did a better job controlling possession.

Three points followed, courtesy of a nice piece of breakdown work by Liam Coltman, drawing them to within eight.

When Max Hicks emerged a minute before halftime, restoring the team to 15 men, the Highlanders had done well to keep it to 14-6, all things considered.

That had as much to do with the Hurricanes’ lack of execution as it did the Highlanders’ defence.

The same could be said in reverse about many who have withstood pressure from the Highlanders this season, though.

Barrett made that 17-6 just after the break, before momentum swung.

Highlanders hooker Andrew Makalio crossed from a lineout drive to peg it to within six, before a Marty Banks penalty from just inside halfway made the deficit three.

They took the lead with an outrageous piece of skill from Thomas Umaga-Jensen, who left-hand batted a Mitch Hunt grubber back into Hunt on a counterattack down the left wing.

It left the Hurricanes scrambling, as Daniel Lienert-Brown was pulled down near the line.

Ardie Savea came up with a turnover, but the Highlanders got it back immediately and Hicks crashed over to make it 21-17.

But a late try to Morgan sealed the Highlanders’ fate, the replacement first five crossing in the left corner with five minutes to play.

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