Rugby: Highlanders score upset in season-opener

Victor Vito of the Hurricanes is tackled by Adam Thompson of the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images
Victor Vito of the Hurricanes is tackled by Adam Thompson of the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images

It will go down as one of the least memorable season-opening matches in 16 years of professional Super rugby but the Highlanders will have few complaints after they stormed into the New Zealand capital and upset the undermanned Hurricanes 14-9 here tonight.

There were mistimed passes, handling errors, missed goalkicks, stoppages, penalties and other infringements galore - not to mention the sending off of All Blacks second five-eighths Ma'a Nonu - but the upshot of it all was a brilliant start to the new Super 15 for the southern men, New Zealand's perennial strugglers of recent seasons.

New coach Jamie Joseph, coach of Wellington in last year's national provincial championship, emphasised the basics pre-match and the Highlanders were simply the best of two rusty teams in completing them.

They scored the only try of the match, to Wellington-born pivot Lima Sopoaga, and led 11-6 at halftime, but the key moment came 10 minutes into the second half when Nonu was sent off by Australian whistleblower Stu Dickinson for a second yellow card offence.

The dreadlocked midfield back was sinbinned in the first half for lying on the ball and a lack of discipline cost him and the Hurricanes when he shoulder charged Highlanders halfback Jimmy Cowan, Dickinson with no option other than to produce a second yellow card and the mandatory red.

The Highlanders could have put the hosts away but mistakes at crucial times cost them and Sopoaga missed four kicks at goal.

The Hurricanes were handed a lifeline when Highlanders substitute Brayden Mitchell was sinbinned for a professional foul with 10min remaining, but they never really threatened the line as a steady flow of penalties and errors marred the match.

The Hurricanes dominated territory in a scrappy first 20min - there were eight penalties in the first quarter - but first five-eighth Aaron Cruden's kicking radar was errant and he converted just one of three relatively straightforward penalty attempts.

Sopoaga landed one from two in the same period but he made a more important contribution midway through the half, finishing off a Cowan bust to score the first try of the new season.

The visitors won clean ball from a lineout on the Hurricanes 22m line and the nippy Cowan spied a gaping hole at the back of the lineout, bursting through the gap and finding Sopoaga backing up in his inside, the 19-year-old debutant crossing adjacent to the posts but fluffing the simple conversion.

His profligacy did not matter, Joseph marking a successful debut as Highlanders coach while his counterpart, Mark Hammett, would have been left scratching his head after his first match in charge of the Hurricanes.

- NZPA

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