Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Hammett looks to play-offs

Mark Hammett's men gave their play-off chances a massive boost last night with their win over the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.
Mark Hammett's men gave their play-off chances a massive boost last night with their win over the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.

It took a four-week test window to halt the Super Rugby competition and the Hurricanes only 80 minutes to turn it on its head.

In beating the Crusaders 23-22 at AMI Stadium in Christchurch last night, Mark Hammett's men gave their play-off chances a massive boost and effectively ensured the Chiefs will top the New Zealand conference.

The Crusaders slipped to fifth, with 52 competition points, the Hurricanes moving up to sixth, three points behind. The red and blacks are in dangerous territory, with a tough match against the Chiefs in Hamilton next Friday and a home game against the Force the week after. A loss to the Chiefs, who showed few signs of rust in beating the Highlanders 27-21 in Dunedin on Friday night, and their play-off destiny may not be in their hands.

For the Hurricanes it was remarkable victory. The Wellington-based side haven't beaten the Crusaders since 2009 and this after a 42-14 beating in Wellington in April at the hands of the seven-time champions. That they managed it despite a scrum often stuck in reverse and a hooker, Dane Coles, who struggled with his lineout throwing made it all the more incredible.

They now have the bye and a final round-robin match against the Chiefs in Wellington. They are likely to welcome back loose forward Victor Vito from his knee injury and Cory Jane from his ankle problem. They will definitely be confident of another upset.

"This team is young, there is a real newness about it, so history doesn't get in the road of this group," said Hammett. "That has been a positive for us this year and certainly there were no fears when they headed down to Christchurch. And they learned some pretty good lessons when they [Crusaders] gave us a hiding in Wellington earlier on in the year.

"It's been a hallmark of this team that we learn lessons pretty quickly and apply them. It was gutsy, it wasn't pretty. The set piece was difficult at times, it was up and down, but the guts from the defensive perspective and that breakdown area was outstanding."

For Hammett, a former Crusaders assistant coach, it was a victory to savour. For Todd Blackadder, a tough one to take. His halftime message to his players, down 17-16 at the break, was to play in Hurricanes' territory. It wasn't adhered to and the Crusaders paid the consequences, though they had late chances to win it - a penalty attempt wide on the left by Tom Taylor narrowly missed and Tyler Blyendaal's effort after the hooter from more than 50m went under the bar.

The first of Conrad Smith's two tries would also have earned his anger - referee Bryce Lawrence awarding it despite Julian Savea's interference hindering defenders Taylor and Zac Guildford.

The Crusaders had gone to the test window break following 50-point wins over the Blues and Highlanders. But a team missing the injured Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Israel Dagg, and which has become known for its slow starts to seasons, fell into bad habits again.

Hammett sidestepped a question about whether he thought the Crusaders were ripe for the picking, but said: "We knew that we had to physically match them. We thought they would try to take us on through the middle so we predicted that and trained for that and I thought we defended that pretty well."

He said of the Chiefs match at Westpac Stadium on Friday, July 13: "That result is likely to determine whether we go through to the finals or not so it's pretty exciting times for the people of Wellington and the wider Hurricanes franchise."

Hurricanes loose forwards Jack Lam, Brad Shields and Faifili Levave set the tone at the breakdown but it was centre and captain Smith who was the outstanding individual on both attack and defence.

"There are some very good players going around at the moment ... but he's been inspirational and he'd certainly be up there as one of the players of the year in Super Rugby," Hammett said.

Hurricanes 23 (Conrad Smith 2 tries; Beauden Barrett 2 cons, 3 pens) bt Crusaders 22 (Zac Guildford try; Tom Taylor con, 5 pens). HT: 17-16.


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