The Wellington Hurricanes upset Super 15 leaders the Waikato Chiefs 28-25 with a dramatic late try yesterday to keep their slim hopes of a top six play-off berth on life support.
Hooker Dane Coles’ try four minutes after the full-time siren also dented the Chiefs’ chances of ending the regular season in top spot and guaranteeing themselves home advantage through the finals series.
While the Chiefs are already guaranteed a finals spot after winning the New Zealand Conference, South Africa’s Western Stormers can now overtake them with a win over the Western Force in this weekend’s final round of regular matches.
After a frantic first half, which included two tries to winger Julian Savea, the Hurricanes looked to have faded against their New Zealand rivals, before launching a last-ditch attack after being awarded a penalty.
Desperately keeping possession after the siren sounded, they laid siege to the Chiefs’ line, Coles forcing his way across a jumble of bodies for a try that the TV referee ruled legitimate after an agonizing delay.
While the win sparked wild celebrations among the Hurricanes players, there are six teams vying for four play-off spots in this weekend’s round and they still need results elsewhere to go their way to make the cut.
Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith said the ’Canes, written off at the start of the season after a clear-out of high-profile players such as Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu, had proved a point regardless.
“We threw everything at each other and we somehow crawled over the line to take it,” he said. “I’m proud of the way we played, whether we make the play-offs or not, it’s been a heck of a year considering where we’ve come from.”
The Chiefs made a perfect start with a try after three minutes, Tawera Kerr-Barlow slipping through the defense to score between the posts, with the Hurricanes complaining the referee accidentally obstructed a tackler.
Whistleblower Jonathan Kaplan waved away the protest and Aaron Cruden made an easy conversion to make it 7-0.
The Hurricanes almost hit back two minutes later after a line break from Jack Lam, but had to settle for a Beauden Barrett penalty as the Chiefs’ defense held firm.
Smith soon found a way through for the home side, leaving the Chiefs standing with a dummy pass in the center of the park, then offloading for the Hurricanes to work the ball over to Savea for the winger’s first try.
They maintained the pressure and were rewarded with Savea’s second in the 23rd minute, the big winger bulldozing his way over the line and Barrett converting to make it 15-7.
With momentum going their way, the Hurricanes then suffered a setback when prop Ben May was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Sonny Bill Williams 10 minutes from halftime.
The Chiefs took full advantage, as Cruden narrowed the gap with a penalty before Ben Tameifuna leveled the scores at 15-15, driving the ball over after a lineout from 5m out.
Barrett gave the Hurricanes a slight edge going into the break, kicking a penalty after the siren to make it 18-15.
The score remained unchanged until the 57th minute, when Cruden intercepted a pass from Savea and ran away uncontested to put the Chiefs ahead with a try that he duly converted.
The teams exchanged penalties and appeared to have run each other to a standstill, until Coles’ heroics produced a result that could have a significant impact on how the finals shape up.