Vodacom Super Rugby
Highlanders upset Hurricanes
Wellington - The Highlanders opened the new era of Super rugby on Friday with a scrappy 14-9 upset victory over the Hurricanes, who played the last 30 minutes with 14 men after All Black back Ma'a Nonu was sent off.
There will be much better matches than the opening encounter of the new season of the southern hemisphere's provincial championship, now expanded to 15 teams, than this penalty-strewn encounter at Westpac Stadium.
Centre Nonu served 10 minutes in the sin bin in the first half for an infringement at the breakdown and got a second yellow for a nasty shoulder barge into the head of Highlanders scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan.
All Blacks halfback Cowan was at the heart of the best of what the Highlanders had to offer, setting up the only try for debutant flyhalf Lima Sopoaga with a storming run round the back of a line-out after 19 minutes of the first half.
"We made tough work of it but it's character building I guess," Highlanders skipper Jamie Mackintosh told reporters.
"It's great for my boys to get off to a start like this. Not many people give us a chance, I just love the boys hooking into it."
The 20-year-old Sopoaga, who moved from Wellington to play senior rugby, also kicked two penalties but missed three easy efforts and replacement Robbie Robinson added the Highlanders' final three points.
The Hurricanes lacked nothing in effort but made too many mistakes, particularly at the breakdown, and failed to gain the field position which would have allowed them to unleash their All Blacks-laden backline.
Flyhalf Aaron Cruden kicked three penalties for the home side but a match featuring 23 penalties appropriately turned on Nonu's departure for the second and final time after 50 minutes.
"You try and play a team with 14 men for thirty minutes and make that many mistakes and you're never going to win a game," Hurricanes skipper Andrew Hore said in a pitchside interview.
The match finished with just 28 men on the field after a late yellow card for replacement Highlanders hooker Brayden Mitchell but the visitors held out for their first win over the Hurricanes in six attempts.