Conrad Smith says the Hurricanes' biggest weakness may have strangely become their greatest strength as their unorthodox Super Rugby campaign heads into its final phase.
A playoff berth is a realistic prospect after the Hurricanes' 26-20 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday night. Their sixth win leaves them eighth, and just two points behind the sixth-placed Sharks.
With home games against the Brumbies, on Friday, and Rebels, then a trip to Sydney to play the struggling Waratahs, the next three weeks will be crucial before a tough finish against the Crusaders and Chiefs.
Those teams will be scratching their heads at the Hurricanes' ability to win on scraps, a trend that continued in Dunedin where the home team enjoyed 59 per cent of possession and a 61 per cent territorial advantage.
But Smith said his team had become so accustomed to battling those odds, it no longer fazed them.
"There is just a sense. When we defend for long periods, we seem to suddenly get away, we get a turnover and suddenly we get in their half and there is this real feeling in the group that we're going to score now, we're a chance," he said.
"We talk a lot about how we will hit back. That last try [against the Highlanders] started when we stuffed up a lineout. I got smacked over behind the advantage line, we lost another ruck, but when that happens we just realign and wait for our chance.
"We know we have guys who will score us points out wide."
That's exactly what happened at Forsyth Barr Stadium, where wing Cory Jane's counter-attack and Julian Savea's late try sealed the win.
"I felt in the first half when we played it felt good, we were really threatening them," Smith said.
"We said at halftime let's play, let's not kick it because they're looking after the ball like they have all year.
"I felt when we kept hold of the ball we were stressing them. That was the plan and we have a bunch of guys who always listen to what's said, that's the pleasing thing."
The Hurricanes looked to be struggling in the first half, but upped the tempo after halftime, and dug their toes in – with a brilliant try-saving tackle by fullback Andre Taylor on Phil Burleigh among several crucial moments.
"I was thinking when we were down 14-3, this is the sort of game where you will say, yeah, we showed character and lost, but you want to win them," Smith said.
"At the start of the season we could have lost that and felt good about ourselves, but now we want to win rugby games. We don't want to just feel like a good team.
"Here we took the next step and won the footy game."
Those sentiments were echoed by coach Mark Hammett, who saw his young pack take yet another step forward.
"The most pleasing thing was the ticker," he said.
"There were a few opportunities there where they got in our 22 and started rolling the sleeves up in the forwards, which we know they're very good at, and we managed to bash them back and create pressure that was so great we got some turnovers.
"In some regards it is [a turning point], particularly having to hold out under pressure for long periods, but rugby's a funny game and we've got to come back next week," he said.
Hammett said Taylor had a "sore head" after leaving the field with 20 minutes to play when he was crash-tackled by outstanding Highlanders centre Tamati Ellison, but was otherwise he was fine.
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- The Dominion Post
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