Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders edge Hurricanes in thriller

Malaki Fekitoa on the burst against the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty
Malaki Fekitoa on the burst against the Hurricanes. Photo / Getty

HIGHLANDERS 17
HURRICANES 16

The Hurricanes and Highlanders just don't do boring. It was as if last year's final never ended as they hammered away at each other for 80 minutes in a game that was a bit loose at times but always compelling.

Just like the last time they met, it was the Highlanders who were just that bit more clinical and composed in those critical moments.

Games between these two rarely move beyond a seven-point margin so it was always going to come down to taking the chances when they came. Jason Woodward's crazy decision to kick - direct into touch as it happened - when the Hurricanes had a last chance, illustrated the difference between the two teams.

When it is a thriller - calm heads win the day. And it was a thriller.

As it happened: Hurricanes v Highlanders

The pace was predictably frenetic. The ball was dry, the ground was firm and the crowd were there to be entertained so it all made sense.

Then of course there was the strengths of the respective teams. Neither are predisposed to conservatism: they both made the final last year on the back of their ambition, relentless desire to keep the ball moving and hunt for space.

In short, they both love playing rugby and that's understandable. They both have the players for it. The Highlanders looked at their best when Aaron Smith was slinging balls hard and fast across the line. When he invites a runner - any runner - to pick an angle and crash into the opposition midfield, that's when the Highlanders were so good.

That was the way the opening try was created - a Smith long ball that Malakai Fekitoa came back against hard before straightening up and powering through a huge hole.

Early in the second half there was almost an identical play where Jason Emery stormed through a hole from a similarly flat pass.

It was a strong reminder why the Highlanders are the defending champions and how much danger they pose when they keep recycling quickly and probing.

That continual desire to move the point of attack is what makes them so hard to contain. They didn't let the Hurricanes settle or have a moment's piece and it looked as if the visitor's unravelled a little because of the pace. They were much improved from their first outing - but then they could hardly have been any worse - but they were still guilty, for too long, of making unforced errors and occasional poor decisions that prevented them from building pressure and points.

By the final quarter they were flowing better and were more certain about where they were attacking. Beauden Barrett stepped up, took control and used his running game to find holes and play others into them. His pace is such a weapon - it stretches and breaks defences and the Highlanders couldn't always scramble fast enough to close him down.

He also seemed to be everywhere. One minute he's be running at the line, the next he was fielding a high kick in the backfield and launching a counter attack from deep.

As he ran the game for the Hurricanes and Smith shaped it for the Highlanders, it was hard not to drift ahead and start thinking if these could form a stunning combination at a higher level.

Highlanders 17 (M. Fekitoa tries; L. Sopoaga con; H. Parker pen)
Hurricanes 16 (T. Perenara tries; B. Barrett 3 pens, con)

Highlanders v Hurricanes - Match centre

- NZ Herald

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