Could the Hurricanes possibly have conspired to throw that game away any more convincingly than they almost did? Leading by 23-6 with not long to go, the Hurricanes nearly completely blew a 17 point lead. The fact is though, they did not. They hung on to win by 3 points with the Reds turning down many opportunities late on for a shot at goal and a tie - fair enough in the context of their season. A draw would have been 2 points, the narrow loss 1 point - had they got their try it would have been 5 points. So despite doing their best to lose, the Hurricanes have held on to beat the Drug Cheats 26-23 at Ballymore. Here's how it happened.
First thing I notice in the Hurricanes starting lineup is that Flutey started ahead of Holwell! I saw this as a mistake right from the start and it transpired that way as well. Coops, I don't care if you're trying to create competition! You don't drop Holwell to the bench when he's in such great form.
Anyway the game began with utter dominance by the Reds. With a few smart kicks from Valentine and line breaks by Latham the Canes were immediately under the hammer. Latham looked like he'd tear us apart every time the ball ended up in his hands but thankfully desperate Hurricanes defence nailed him and his mates before he could get over. After an early miss from Flatley from long range, he nailed a penalty to make things 3-0.
Then more Queensland attack matched with more Hurricanes defence. It was the theme of the evening it seems. Somehow the Canes defended well enough to get a couple of penalties that Flutey nailed for 6-3. One of them was for a late tackle on a Cullen chip from Josh Valentine.
Sometime about now was a crucial point in the match. Latham got pummelled in a Jerry Collins hit causing him to go to hospital with a severe sprained ankle. The Reds attack never looked the same. Throughout the night the Reds had plenty of territory and possession - all they needed was their world-class finisher and I'm sure they would have won very handsomely. As it was they seemed to shift the focus of the attack to Windhole who had no repeat of his heroics last week.
But the Reds kept attackin' and the Canes kept defendin'. Eventually there was a turnover where the ball was shifted left to Cullen who did another chip kick and was once again taken late by Valentine. He was duely sent to the bin and pretty soon the Canes capitalised. From the lineout in the QLD 22 the ball was given to Umaga who was too fast and too strong for the weak Reds tacklers. Slotted by Flutey and 13-3. Another Flatley penalty made it 13-6 at the break.
Now at this stage we lost all contact with Brisbane! A power outage apparantly - I'd be interested to know if the lights went out in Ballymore as well.
So the second half began and early on it was more of the same. Hurricanes defence, Reds attack. Still no tries though. A few penalties saw the Canes move on upfield into kicking range for Flutey and once again he nailed it and it's 16-6.
Then a remarkable try - at the time I thought it would be a knockout blow for the Reds. Spun wide from a ruck at about halfway Holwell got it and passed AROUND the man who tackled him to Flutey. From there it was a draw and pass to put Cullen under the bar and the Canes ahead 23-6.
But the Reds weren't done. Not by a long shot. Finally all their possesion began to turn into points. Their first try was a great maul. John Roe and a few of his mates drove hard and low toward the line and after consultation with the video ref the try was awarded. Good reward for all their possession - kick over and 23-13.
It wasn't long before they crossed again! They went wide once, they went wide twice, they went wide again and again but they simply couldn't beat terrific tackles from the Hurricanes. Finally Dan Herbert did find one though and suddenly it's 23-18. Bloody hell.
Another Riki Flutey penalty gave some breathing room again, but at the 75th minute that little flea Josh Valentine got the ball when it flew out the side of a maul. Now, there are good pickups and then there are Good Pickups. This was a Good Pickup off his toes. He only had 2 metres to dive, but that didn't take away from the quality of the catch. At this point Huxley had taken over the goalkicking and it was only divine intervention that saw the conversion hit the post. A total of 13 points missed with the boot for the Reds. Costly.
About this time the perplexing decision was made to take off Tim Fairbrother and put on Tama Turirurangi late in the game. There were two scrums the Hurricanes had after Fairbrother went off and both of them turned to crap. It was noticed. Just like it was noticeable that the scrum problems we had against the Crusaders and Bulls disappeared almost entirely once Fairbrother was allowed to start the games instead of Turirurangi. Either Fairbrother is really fantastic or Turirurangi is absolutely abysmal - or both, as I suspect. Coops must have been kicking himself.
So it's 26-23 with 5 minutes to go. "Seen it all before" I thought resignedly. Every year the Canes lose a couple at the start to put the pressure on, win a heap in the middle to get hopes up, then completely stuff up somewhere and scratch the season. Last year it was the Cullen almost-tries against the Waratahs. Surely the Hurricanes would fold?
Well, in the end they didn't and live to screw up another day - but I wasn't to know that as I screamed abuse at the television, the Hurricanes, the Reds, Andre Watson, the cat... it was a rough period. That last 5 minutes of defence saved our season. Of that I have no doubt. The ball ended up in the Hurricanes hands at last after 5 minutes of nothing but defending in the 22 - the hooter had not sounded when the ball was run out into touch and for one horrible instant I thought there might still be time left on the clock. But Andre blew the pill and that was it. 26-23 and for the 5th week in a row the Hurricanes emerge on top.
The game in general gave me strong flashbacks to last year's win over the Brumbies in Canberra. Both the Brumbies and Reds dominated territory and possession, turned down numerous shots at goal, the Hurricanes defence held more often than not, and the few times the Hurricanes got down the other end they came away with points almost every time. Both games were nailbiters and both resulted in narrow wins to the Canes.
It's funny because the Hurricanes will probably get more out of this game that they won narrowly than they would have if they'd won by 20 points. Even more odd is the fact that after conceding 3 late tries the media is in raptures over our "great defence... character... hard nosed attitude" - but if we'd conceded just one more late try it would have been "inconsistancy... capitulation... gutless performance..." etc... Oh well. We won a close one against an Australian team, which is more than the Crusaders can boast.
But now that we've set a new record for consecutive wins and have beaten most of the lesser teams we're going to find out just what this Hurricanes team is made of. If you look at all the teams we've beaten so far, they're all in the bottom half of the ladder - we've still got the Highlanders, Brumbies, Blues and Waratahs to play and I'm still not going to talk up our chances of making the semis until it's mathematically impossible for us to miss out. I've been suckered into believing we'd make the semis too many times to be getting too optimistic. 1998, 2000 and 2001 spring to mind.
When I first started writing this article on Saturday afternoon I was writing about how the Waratahs should be easy pickings after losing 3 in a row at home (assuming the Crusaders would thrash them later on that day). Boy how that's changed. The Hurricanes should still be favourites, but not by much. You don't beat the defending champions unless you're a good, good side. A thriller at the Stadium is in store!