It was a double celebration in the capital on Friday night as the Hurricanes toasted Rodney So'oialo's Super rugby century in style and put themselves within touching distance of a spot in the semifinals.
In a stunning second-half display the Canes, led by a Hosea Gear hat-trick, rattled off 31 unanswered points to stun the Queensland Reds 44-21 after they looked to have their hosts in a world of hurt in the opening stanza.
But the second-half specialists from the capital - down 13-21 at the break -- kept their cool, and completed their fourth come-from-behind victory of the season. They ran in four tries over the run home, without reply, to knock the flushed Reds out of semifinal contention.
The five points Colin Cooper's Canes earned for their six-tries-to-three win lifts them to 37 points, and with a royal chance of making their fifth semifinal in the last six years. It won't be easy, but a win against the Waratahs in Sydney next Friday night should give them a decent chance of qualifying.
In the meantime it was set to be a big night in the capital with a fourth straight victory to celebrate, a team showing good signs of climbing back into form and 100 Super rugby appearances by their stalwart No 8 who fittingly went the full 80 with his trademark commitment and courage.
Gear was the star of the show for the Canes with a crisply taken hat-trick, two coming in the powerful second-half surge, while skilful fullback Cory Jane and wing Tamati Ellison also had hugely influential performances which included tries.
The Canes looked better for the poise of Piri Weepu at halfback, and the chunky No 9 also converted all four second-spell tries with a strong kicking display. Aaron Cruden also came into his own after the break with his distribution skills.
The home team also had a real edge at the set piece, and their pack worked hard to lay on a solid display of ball throughout the match. Hard workers like skipper Andrew Hore, So'oialo and talented utility Michael Paterson very much set the tone for that, while Karl Lowe was a busy openside.
There were also some serious - and needed - adjustments made to the Canes defence at the break. After being cut apart down the inside channels over the first 40, the holes were closed and the Reds kept pointless over the run home.
"It was a little bit frustrating walking in at halftime two weeks in a row letting a team get away on us," said Hore. "But we shored up our 'D' around the ruck and things started going our way."
Hore also praised his side's set-piece solidity which laid a key foundation. "The scrum has been going pretty well for us most of the time, and the lineout has got some good combinations there, so it was all right."
The skipper paid tribute to centurion So'oialo who becomes the 12th New Zealander to pass the special milestone.
"This is huge, he's a special man," said the Canes captain. "That 40 minutes in the second half summed up how much he means to the team."
The Canes were once again forced to battle their way back from behind at halftime after coughing up a devastating three-try, 10-minute burst from the Reds midway through the spell.
It was the Reds at their attacking best as they opened up some flimsy Canes defence around the inside channels, and once again left the Wellington side with plenty to do over the second 40 as they trailed by eight, 13-21, at the break.
The Hurricanes had actually made a fast start, soaking up some early pressure and then thrusting out to 8-0 on the back of a crisp Jane try and a Weepu penalty. Jane's score was a beaut, Gear doing extremely well to tiptoe down the touchline and find his fullback with an inpass before going out.
But any thoughts that this was going to be a breeze for the Hurricanes were soon dispelled as the Reds finally got their hands on possession and caused havoc with their ball-in-hand brilliance.
At the forefront of it all, as he'd been for so much of this season, was silky halfback Will Genia whose speed and skilful hands have made him one of the competition's most exciting players.
Flanker Scott Higginbotham had the Reds' first try on the 18-minute mark, Genia creating something from nothing with his speed and a fabulous inpass, and within 10 minutes later the visitors had two more, and a 21-8 lead.
Speedster Rod Davies had the second - shortly before limping off with a hamstring problem - when he blitzed through off Anthony Faingaa's inpass, and centre Will Chambers the third when he won the chase to Quade Cooper's nudge-through.
Gear then picked up a crucial late score as the Canes attacked from deep with time up, mainly thanks to the brilliance of Jane who dazzled with his footwork and then found his wing for the finish.
Things turned sour for the Reds early in the second spell when flanker Andrew Shaw was binned for a dangerous tackle on Weepu and the Hurricanes made them pay with two tries, and a 27-21 lead.
Gear had the first - his second - when the Reds coughed up ball near their own line and Ellison the second when he stood up Anthony Faingaa beautifully to finish a sparkling move inspired by Paterson's intercept.
The Reds were then restored to full numbers, but the 14-0 burst seemed to have crushed their spirit, with Gear completing his hat-trick just inside the hour-mark as Nonu sliced through off Aaron Cruden's inside ball.
Replacement wing David Smith completed the scoring for the home side when he breezed over from a short scrum, and not even a late period of pressure from the Reds was enough for them to pick up a bonus point fourth try.
Hurricanes 44 (Hosea Gear 3, Cory Jane, Tamati Ellison, David Smith tries; Piri Weepu 2 pen, 4 con) Reds 21 (Scott Higginbotham, Rod Davies, Will Chambers tries; Quade Cooper 3 con). Halftime: 13-21.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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