Highlanders edge the Canes in titanic battle
Hayden Parker will be a hero down south and TMO Aaron Paterson a villain in Wellington following the Highlanders' 18-16 win over the Hurricanes tonight.
First five-eighth Parker played the key role in kicking five penalties and a decisive drop goal in a match that hung in the balance for the full 80 minutes in front of 13,575 tense fans.
But it was Paterson's decision in the 75th minute to rule obstruction against Hurricanes replacement hooker Ash Dixon that will be talked about for some time to come.
It ruled out what would have been halfback TJ Perenara's second try of the night, a score that would have put the Hurricanes 21-18 up with five minutes to play.
The ramifications of the call could be immense for both sides. The Hurricanes' sixth loss means they face an uphill battle to make the playoffs with only four matches to play.
For the Highlanders though, their dream season continues, a seventh win seeing them move to fourth on the ladder and to within a point of New Zealand Conference leaders the Chiefs.
Parker should be rightly hailed. He was only starting due to an injury to the incumbent Lima Sopoaga, but showed total poise to knock over the crucial kicks, two from long distance, and a composed drop goal from open play.
The Hurricanes will rue two missed Andre Taylor penalties in the second half, the second a relatively easy kick with eight minutes on the clock.
The fullback had found himself with the kicking dutites after first five eighth Beauden Barrett injured a leg early and spent most of the night limping in backplay before finally succumbing with 18 minutes to play.
That forced Tim Bateman in a spot to first five-eighth and Alapati Leiua, whose physical presence had been missed in the middle of the park, to second five-eighth.
The injury hit Highlanders showed huge character, trailing from the 20th minute before Parker's pot grabbed the lead with 15 minutes to play.
Without suspended prop Chris King the scrum stepped up to the mark too, Kane Hames earning some crucial penalties in his battle with Jeffery Toomaga-Allen.
Several head match-ups made for compelling viewing.
Perenara got the better of All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith as he hustled him all night.
With All Blacks coach Steve Hansen in the stands, Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman and his opposite Motu Matu'u both struggled away at lineout time, but the former gained a points decision with Matu'u subbed just after halftime.
But it was the battle of the centre's that produced the most pleasing result with young bull Malakai Fekitoa upstaging his opposite Conrad Smith with a performance that would have had Hansen smiling in the stands.
It wasn't so much the brutish ball carrying that's marked Fekitoa's season as his defence, an eye-catching and try-saving cover tackle on Julian Savea show-casing the centre's pace and technique.
Up front it was no holds barred as both sides looked for space in behind. Nasi Manu and Ma'afu Fia were impressive with ball in hand for the visitors.
It took 37 minutes and a dubious TMO decision to bring the first try of the match to Perenara.
A not straight lineout throw from Matu'u appeared to have given the Highlanders a life line after an extended period on defence, but Perenara stripped the ball from Aaron Smith's hands at the back of the ensuing scrum and wriggled over.
The TMO ruled Perenara had dragged the ball backward before regathering and the home side took a 13-6 lead with Taylor's conversion.
Parker rounded out the half with his third penalty when Matu'u was pinged for playing the ball on the ground and the teams went to the sheds on equal footing bar the four point difference on the scoreboard.
Highlanders 18 (Hayden Parker 5 pen, drop goal) Hurricanes 16 (TJ Peranara try, Beauden Barrett 2 pens, Andre Taylor con, pen). HT: 9-13