The Hurricanes feel like they're heading in the right direction - and not just because they're making the long haul back to New Zealand today after a tough old opening fortnight in South Africa.
Yesterday's heartbreaking 19-18 defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town, coughed up via a late driving maul try to home forward Deon Fourie and nerveless conversion wide out by Demetri Catrakilis, left the Canes with just one point from their two matches in the Republic.
On the surface it's a disappointing return for a side with playoff ambitions. But after being ground into the turf somewhat by the Sharks a week previous, the Canes were humming from a pretty positive song sheet yesterday as they reflected on one that very much slipped from their grasp at the finish.
The Hurricanes forwards made massive improvements after being owned by the Sharks in Durban. The scrum steadied significantly, till a couple of late wobbles, and the lineout was dominant as they harried the Stormers into four giveaways on their own throw.
In fact, until the last five minutes at Newlands yesterday the Hurricanes would have been immensely satisfied with their response to the Durban reality check. They'd scored the game's only two tries and their defence - a big emphasis this season - had negated everything the Stormers had thrown at them.
At 18-12, a meritorious victory was well and truly on as the game headed into its concluding minutes. But then, as coach Mark Hammett remarked, "the rub of the green didn't go our way".
The Stormers set up camp deep in their 22, got a free-kick for an incorrect scrum feed from replacement Canes halfback Chris Smylie, converted that into a full penalty from the resultant scrum, kicked for the corner, then finally nailed the drive when Fourie went over in a wedge of bodies. Game over.
"There were huge improvements at the scrum," Hammett said afterwards, working hard to channel some positivity through the disappointment.
"We put them under a lot of pressure there. It was an incredibly good forward effort across the board, and I felt pretty proud of that."
The Hurricanes had scored two quality tries to take a 12-6 lead into halftime, with Julian Savea racing on to TJ Perenara's toe-through and Cory Jane sliding across after gathering Hadleigh Parkes' pinpoint crosskick. The Stormers, on the other hand, never looked like breaching until the Canes coughed up one short lineout too many at the end.
"We've had three tries scored against us over the two games," Hammett said.
"It's something we're worked hard on. We want to change our identity to become a good side defensively, and we've made a good start from that perspective.
"It's early, but I'm reasonably buoyed. We're obviously disappointed at the moment, which is a natural feeling after a loss that you should have won. We'll regroup tomorrow, get back and look forward to playing the Brumbies [in Wellington] next week."
Hammett highlighted turnovers as an issue from both games in South Africa, though rain just before kickoff didn't help yesterday with both sides struggling at times with the slippery ball. It had been a similar story in the humidity of Durban.
"We need to be smart and we need to be technically better when we take the ball into contact in those conditions," he said.
"If we tidy that part of the game up we'll put teams under pressure for longer periods.
"These guys are smart rugby players, they know how close they've got, they know the improvements we've made over two weeks and the belief they can take out of a strong effort tonightcx."
Skipper Conrad Smith said it was a frustrating loss to take after making so many strides in the wake of the Sharks shakeup.
"It felt like we did everything to win that game, then to get called for not putting the ball in straight in the last five minutes. It just wasn't our day.
"We'd worked so hard, defended a lot early on, took a couple of good chances and created plenty for the rest of the game. We kept attacking to the end, and on another day we might have got a penalty towards the end to get the win.
"But it's a long competition, and we've got to head home and keep doing it. If we turn up and play like that every week we'll win more than we lose, that's for sure."
That's the Hurricanes' challenge now.
Yesterday's bold effort must be their baseline. They've got to get better, stronger, and more efficient.
Only then will they start turning gallant defeats into notable victories.
- Sunday News
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