Hurricanes show urgency needed to win games
Desperation saved the Hurricanes from despair on Friday night.
Three losses to start the season would have been near terminal for playoff aspirations.
But, thanks to Alapati Leiua's match-winning intercept, the Canes came back from the brink to claim their crucial first win of the year and inflict a 29-28 defeat on the deflated Crusaders, who slumped to successive losses.
"It was a relief when he got that intercept," explosive Hurricanes wing Julian Savea said.
Mark Hammett may look back on Leiua's moment of instinctive brilliance as season-defining. Crusaders replacement Adam Whitelock won't rush to review the tape of his ambitious pass, though the visitors failed to take two other vital late chances.
"It was about time we got out of jail on the other side of the ledger," said Victor Vito, who produced another standout effort in his 50th match after shifting to his favoured position at No 8.
For nearly 70-minutes Beauden Barrett's boot was all that kept the Canes in the enthralling contest. Vito's grunt, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen's scrummaging and Julian Savea's powerhouse antics - Israel Dagg will have nightmares of being steamrolled by the big bus - were other key figures. But it never felt like enough.
This was more than just four competition points for Hammett's men.
Underwhelming losses to the Blues and Reds had rocked their confidence.
It's too early to say they have turned the corner but they can only grow from here. Getting off the start line is often the hardest part.
Leaky defence, poor execution and accuracy, wayward passing and conceding four-tries-to-two all suggest the Canes have plenty to work on. Yet somehow Hammett's men escaped. This could be the spark they needed.
A stuttering attack is another concern. Last year the Canes scored the most tries in the competition. In three games this year, they've scored just three - one from an intercept and one from penalty try against the Blues.
"It's far from a perfect performance," Vito said. "We've beaten a good Crusaders team but we certainly made it hard on ourselves. We're pushing those passes that have plagued us the last couple of weeks. As soon as we get that balance right, because we do need to play when we get those opportunities, we'll be away."
Hammett has headaches at hooker, too, after All Blacks rake Dane Coles' 50th match ended prematurely with an ankle injury. His replacement, Motu Matu'u, then left the field after typically huge hit on Crusaders lock Dominic Bird. Ash Dixon is the last man standing.
For Todd Blackadder's side, the cruel defeat sought to extenuate the fine line between success and failure.
Of most concern will be the inability to shutout the Canes when it mattered most. Whether coming from behind or protecting a lead, signature Crusaders teams of old have ground out victories, time and again.
It's unclear if this year's team has those capabilities. They haven't shown it yet.
Dan Carter's sliced a dropped kick from in front of the sticks and captain Kieran Read's fumble which bombed Matt Todd's late strike were chances you expect to be taken at this level. Eleven penalties to three is also unacceptable discipline.
Despite the improved performance, some loyal Crusaders supporters are already writing off this side's title credentials, but, with the Bulls in Christchurch next week, Read remained realistic.
"We got in the position to win it by throwing the ball around and playing with intensity. As the game gets tighter you've got to be smarter. We'll certainly look at that," Read said.
"Our effort was there at the end but the intercept and the amount of penalties we'd given away, that really set the tone. You can't give away three points like we did all night. They made us pay."