The Otago Highlanders almost squandered two leads of more than 20 points, but hung on to pip the Wellington Hurricanes 49-44 in their Super Rugby clash at Wellington Regional Stadium yesterday.
The Highlanders led 27-6 and 49-27 during the match, which had little riding on it as both sides will miss the playoffs, and just held on when the Hurricanes stormed back.
The visitors appeared to have put the game beyond doubt in an 11 minute first-half spell when they scored 24 unanswered points through three converted tries to Mose Tuiali’i, Tamati Ellison and Aaron Smith, as well as a Colin Slade penalty, to give them a 27-6 lead.
The Hurricanes, who had shown plenty of enterprise without much penetration, finally gave the small crowd of 8,427 a sliver of hope that they could stage a second-half comeback when hooker Ash Dixon crashed over just before halftime.
That optimism vanished almost immediately when the Highlanders’ winger Kade Poki brushed aside several poor tackles to clinch a bonus-point try after the halftime hooter had sounded, giving his side a 32-13 lead at the break.
Slade added his third penalty just after halftime and the visitors looked to be heading for a comfortable win before Aaron Smith was sin-binned for a professional foul.
The home side got back in the game and Ben Franks and Julian Savea scored tries to narrow the score to 35-27.
The Highlanders again padded their cushion thanks to tries from Hosea Gear, who counterattacked from 60m out, and then Elliot Dixon, and at 49-27 with less than 20 minutes left the visitors looked home and dry.
However, the Hurricanes were far from done and stormed back with converted tries to Chris Smylie and James Broadhurst, and a penalty to Beauden Barrett, but they were unable to snatch an improbable win when they were penalized in the final move of the game while on the attack.