Super Rugby: Highlanders Cause Storm In Capital With Win Over Hurricanes

Jeff CheshireAnalyst IIFebruary 18, 2011

Jimmy Cowan was one of the key players in the Highlanders 14-9 win over the Hurricanes.
Jimmy Cowan was one of the key players in the Highlanders 14-9 win over the Hurricanes.Marty Melville/Getty Images

The Highlanders have got their 2011 Super Rugby campaign off to a positive start with a 14-9 win over the more fancied Hurricanes.

It wasn't pretty, but a win's a win at this stage of the season and that's all that matters as far as the Highlanders are concerned.

The key was dominance up front.

Their forward pack played with much more physicality than the Hurricanes pack, pushing them around and disrupting their ball.

This put the inside back combination of Tyson Keats and Aaron Cruden under all sorts of pressure and meant that they weren't able to unleash their lethal outside backs.

To keep a team that has a back five containing Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea, Hosea Gear and Cory Jane, try-less is a remarkable achievement and shows just how well the Highlanders defended. 

In fact, had it not been for three easy kicks being missed, the win should have been much more comfortable for the southern men.

The kicker in question was 20-year-old Lima Sopoaga, who was making his Super Rugby debut. It was clear that nerves were getting to him, as he slotted two long range penalties, but missed three virtual gimmie's.

Despite this, he looked good around the field, directing play well and other than a few dropped balls, did little wrong and will be worth persisting with.

Jimmy Cowan showed all of his class as he pulled the strings for the Highlanders and ensured that they maintained good field position and organised the defence well.

His running game looked to be much improved, as seen when he scooted around the back of a lineout before flicking a pass inside to Sopoaga to set up the only try of the game.

But it was Adam Thomson who was the real hero for the Highlanders, spearheading a loose forward trio who completely outplayed their opponents. Thomson made tackle after tackle and was very influential in the win running with the ball.

In fact, the whole Highlanders forward pack outplayed their opponents, pushing them off ball and effecting turnovers in the same way the All Blacks did last year.

The backs were more steady than brilliant, but Shaun Treeby looked good running hard into the gaps, while Ben Smith didn't place a wrong foot all night.

With all that said, they will welcome the return of their two best players—first five Colin Slade and lock Tom Donnelly, a combination which is just as important to the Highlanders as the McCaw-Carter duo is to the Crusaders.

For the Hurricanes it was the inability to give their backs room that cost them.

Hosea Gear looked dangerous when he was in space, but suffocating defence from the Highlanders saw that the likes of Smith, Jane and Nonu were unable to cut loose.

A big turning point in the game came with half an hour to go, when Ma'a Nonu received his second yellow card.

One can call him unlucky—given that his first was a team card—but knowing that he was on his final warning he should have been careful not to infringe again and a late shoulder charge which was milked for all it was worth by Jimmy Cowan was just plain madness.

This saw the Hurricanes reduced to 14 men for the final 30 minutes, making it harder to break through what was already a near impossible defence to break.

To their credit, the Hurricanes only conceded three points in the this time, which really sums up the game as being a tight low scoring affair.

The last 10 minutes was nail-biting as the Highlanders lost replacement hooker, Brayden Mitchell to the sin bin, meaning that it would be 14 vs. 14 for the rest of the game.

Wave after wave of attack from the Hurricanes followed, but the Highlanders withstood everything they threw at them and hung on by the skin of their teeth for a dramatic win.

The win will give the southern men a huge confidence boost and will only be good for the young players. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes will need to take a hard look at themselves and get back on the right track for the rest of the season.

Next week, the Highlanders return home to take on the Chiefs, while the Hurricanes are at home to the Crusaders in what will be an epic encounter.