Highlanders hold off Hurricanes in Dunedin
Phil Burleigh doesn't get a lot of raps.
You won't see his face on a banner in Dunedin's George St, for instance.
He washed up at the Highlanders a couple of seasons ago almost by accident before a preseason game in Queenstown and would be described as more solid than spectacular.
But the Bay of Plenty midfielder operates in an almost error free zone and his try against the Hurricanes in a 35-31 win tonight might just have sparked something in this Highlanders team - it certainly helped break the fortitude of the 'Canes after a frenetic first half which was dominated by the boot.
Sparked at the back by, as you'd expect, Ben Smith, with Aaron Smith providing the link, Burleigh's score under the bar with half an hour to go was just the tonic the Highlanders and an 11,259-strong crowd needed, nearly raising the roof of Dunedin Stadium.
Patrick Osborne had the crowd on their feet again seven minutes later when he pinched a floating Hadleigh Parkes pass out of the air and ran 50m to score, a nice moment for the Highlanders after they were snapped by an intercept try by the Force last time out.
For a game with so many penalties being kicked, there was actually quite a lot of rugby being played.
Brad Thorn, returning from a rib injury, rolled back the years with a memorable first half run reminiscent of his days in another code.
Osborne, another player returning from injury, was a menace on the left wing, using his pace to get on the outside of Alapati Leiua and then managing to free an arm like a strainer post and pop the ball to his support.
The story of the first half, however was a battle of the boots between Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett.
With both teams not able to put together the killer play to conjure up a try it was up to the respective five eighths to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
After hitting the left hand upright hard from point blank range with his first attempt, Sopoaga then put on a kicking display, landing six straight attempts to give the Highlanders an 18-9 lead at the break and setting a record for points scored by a Highlander against the Hurricanes.
The first half was a set piece drought, with scrums rare and lineouts even rarer as both teams hoisted the ball in the midfield and waited to see what would develop.
The Hurricanes would look like trouble on occasional visits into the Highlanders 22m, but they were met with the sort of defence that was sadly missing against the Force a week earlier.
It was up to Beauden Barrett to provide the Hurricanes' only points of the half.
After Burleigh and Osborne extended the Highlanders lead out to 23 points, the Hurricanes struck back through Ben Franks.
The Highlanders went to the bench and appeared to lose some momentum.
Hard on defence they went down to 14 men heading into the final 10 minutes when Jarrad Hoeata was binned for a team penalty.
Barrett scored off an Andre Taylor break and again with 30 second to go, but a brave Highlanders team wouldn't be denied.
AT A GLANCE
Highlanders 35 (Phil Burleigh, Patrick Osborne tries; Lima Sopoaga 7 pen, 2 con)
Hurricanes 31 (Ben Franks, Beauden Barrett 2 tries; Beauden Barrett 4 pen, 2 con)
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