Sweetest win fuels dream for sugar Canes
Ten weeks ago the Hurricanes received a good old-fashioned spanking.
Not quite one of wooden spoon breaking severity, but pretty close.
Last night in Christchurch, the Hurricanes were a different beast.
Their 23-22 victory over the seven-time champion Crusaders was one of the biggest upsets of the season and it couldn't have come at a more crucial stage.
It seems like a distant memory when the Crusaders ran rampant against the same opposition. They were unstoppable in the 42-14 romp earlier this year.
The Hurricanes that fronted last night had watched the tape, learnt from that unmistakable lesson in the capital and moulded into brilliant attacking team since that outing.
And, with their season on the line, they turned up with intent to rattle the Crusaders, bidding to celebrate Wyatt Crockett's 100th appearance. The prop's party was well and truly spoilt.
"He deserves better than guys putting in mediocre performances out there," Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder lamented.
The Hurricanes' committed, suffocating, rush defence didn't allow a backline missing Dan Carter and Israel Dagg any room to breathe.
Tom Taylor looked sharp in the absence of his mentor, slotting 17 points, but he wouldn't have slept well.
One point down, he missed a kickable penalty with three minutes remaining which could have stolen the match.
With time up on the clock, replacement playmaker Tyler Bleyendaal stepped up for a last-ditch 50-metre shot, but he, too, couldn't pull off a comeback, his attempt falling under the bar.
Hurricanes' captain Conrad Smith, a smile written all over his face, paused before booting the ball into the stands with jubilation.
Fresh All Blacks' pivot Beauden Barrett held his nerve throughout, kicking five-from-five to secure the win which keeps the Hurricanes in the finals race.
"It is hero or zero," Barrett said of the failed penalty attempts from his opposites. "It's part of the job. I know how he feels when you're in that situation and you miss a kick to lose. It's not very nice. I'm sure he'll come back."
With four points from the bye next week, the closing round do-or-die shot at the Chiefs in Wellington should be a humdinger.
Contrastingly, the Crusaders push for pole position now appears dead.
Immense physicality from the 'Canes at the breakdown exposed a pack without Kieran Read's force. The Hurricanes epitomised a side wanting to further enhance their over-achieving status by securing an unlikely playoffs berth.
It's easy to forget Mark Hammett's men were, supposedly, out-of-their-depth. This was meant to be a rebuilding year. Any wonder Hammett enjoyed his first homecoming.
"We are ecstatic," Hammett beamed. "We wanted to come here and not fear them."
The three-week break blunted the Crusaders' momentum. They had run up cricket scores against the Highlanders and Blues - over 100 points - before the enforced layoff. But they struggled to regain that fluency with the resumption.
The scrum was their only source of dominance, though Hurricanes' hooker Dane Coles had a horror night with his throwing.
The Hurricanes weren't completely dominant. Not until Andre Taylor latched onto a Julian Savea inside ball to crack on his lethal afterburners and put Mr Consistent Smith over did the visitors make any inroads.
There was, however, more than a hint of obstruction controversy in Smith's first strike.
There were plenty of groans from the home fans, left stunned by the end on another freezing night at AMI Stadium.
The Crusaders suffered a case of stunted potency. Their sole try came from a piece of individual Zac Guildford brilliance, the All Blacks' wing busting through Barrett and a weak Taylor tackle just before the interval.
There were few other bright spots for the Red and Blacks.
These young Hurricanes, missing All Blacks Cory Jane and Victor Vito plus next generation halfback TJ Perenara, displayed true character.
Outstandingly led, once again, by Smith, who hit back with his brace, right on half-time, to take a deserved one-point lead.
That it was the same margin at fulltime was not luck, but destiny, something that remains within the Hurricanes' grasp.
Hurricanes (Conrad Smith 2 tries; Beauden Barrett 2 con, 3 pen) Crusaders (Zac Guildford try; Tom Taylor con, 5 pen) Ht: 17-16.
Sunday Star Times