The Hurricanes 31-22 win over the Crusaders on Saturday, ended the seven-time Super Rugby champions' unbeaten run for the season.
What a dramatic, intriguing, gripping and thrilling match!
It was worthy of a Super Rugby Final and, in fact, could still become one this year.
There was so much to play for. The Crusaders would have their sights set on a victory which would have given them a top spot with the advantage of home matches, possibly as far as the final. For the Hurricanes victory would mean going to Canberra, rather than all the way to South Africa for the quarterfinal.
The Hurricanes were at home but that advantage seemed as nought compared with the enforced rearrangement of their backline, as late as the prematch warm-up. In the end only three of their backs stayed as chosen.
Beauden Barrett cried off because of a virus and inexperienced Otere Black came in to flyhalf. Vince Aso did not make it through the warm-ups and that brought about a shuffle. Jordie Barrett moved to outside centre, Nehe Milner-Skudder dropped back to fullback and Wes Goosen came in on the wing. Unsurprisingly it took time for the new backline to get into working order and, before it could, the Crusaders had scored 12 points.
The Crusader pack, even with the luxury of resting Sam Whitelock on the bench, won a fierce contest. They were better at scrums - a messy 15 of them - and line-outs of which there were 26 with the Hurricanes throwing in to 19, but here the Crusaders employed the distasteful tactic that they had learnt from the B&I Lions, of seeking to put off the opposition throw by shouting and gesticulating. The Crusaders also won the turnovers. The problem for the men from the South Island was that they negated all of this with a penalty count of 20 to seven against them.
It was a still evening in Wellington and a crowd of 23 790 in Westpac Stadium for the match, and it started off so well for the Crusaders.
Black kicked off, Bryn Hall kicked back and Milner-Skudder knocked on in difficult circumstances. Ben May was penalised at the scrum. (The first three scrums ended in penalties, the fourth in a free kick.) From the line-out the Crusaders attacked. Richie Mo'unga took advantage of the ragged Hurricanes' defence to throw a long, perfect, left-handed pass to Seta Tamanivalu on the right wing. Tamanivalu did well to catch the dipping ball and was over in the right corner. Mo'unga converted from touch. 7-0 after 3 minutes.
Just after this, the Hurricanes were on the attack and had two penalties close to the Crusaders' line and in front of the posts and each time they opted for scrums even though their scrum was so rickety. The second scrum became a relieving penalty for the Crusaders.
The Crusaders went through phases, again going right and Kieran Read gave a short pass to Tamanivalu who juggled, caught and scored in the right corner. This time Mo'unga's conversion bounced away off an upright, but the Crusaders led 12-0 after 13 minutes. They were bossing the game.
The Highlanders attacked down the left with Julian Savea speeding ahead till lock Scott Barrett caught him from behind. He got the ball to Milner-Skudder but Read won a turnover and the Crusaders cleared.
When the Hurricanes scored it was a beauty. Getting into his stride, Ngani Laumape forged ahead and got a short pass to Jordie Barrett who had got himself into an excellent position. The 20-year-old sped between two defenders and past a third to score a try, which he then converted to make it 12-7 after 31 minutes, the half-time score.
A penalty gave the Hurricanes a line-out. They threw to the front where Sam Lousi peeled around and they were attacking. Then came the great New Zealand moment as Black kicked a high diagonal out to the far left where Julian Savea and Israel Dagg competed for the ball. Savea won the contest and patted the ball back. The ball bounced forward and Savea got the ball and scored an exquisite try. Barrett's conversion gave the home side a 14-12 lead but with 35 minutes to play.
From the kick-off Brad Shields got the ball but slipped. A ruck formed and the Crusaders' counterruck shoved the Hurricanes back and the home side was penalised. Mo'unga goaled and the Crusaders had their lead back - 15-14 with 33 minutes to play.
It was a tense half.
The Crusaders increased their lead as short, advancing phases got them to the goal-line and five-mere scrum. The Crusader backs were lined up left but Read picked up the ball at the back of the scrum and gave a long pass to Dagg on the right. Dagg stepped inside Jordie Barrett and scored. The conversion made it 22-14 after 57 minutes, and the Crusaders seemed to be riding to victory and all its attendant advantages.
But then it was the Hurricanes' turn to have a five-mere scrum after Wes Goosen had chipped and Matt Todd was forced back into his in-goal. TJ Perenara danced to the right and gave Goosen the room to score in the right corner. Jordie Barrett's metronome worked and he again converted from touch. It was now 22-21 to the Crusaders with 20 minutes to play.
Jordie Barrett was short with a penalty attempt from inside his own half.
Sam Whitelock came on in time for a line-out near his 22. It was on the Hurricanes' left. In came a thundering Julian Savea who gave to his brother Ardie who ploughed on. They passed to the left and tall Vaea Fifita was over in the corner, just over and just in the corner. But Jordie Barrett again converted and now the Hurricanes led 28-22 but with 15 scary minutes to play.
From a scrum on the Crusaders' right, Read broke on the right but when he passed inside he gave to Ardie Savea who passed back to Jordie Barrett who kicked out on the full, giving the Crusaders a line-out inside the Hurricanes' 22. From the line-out, substitute scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond broke clean through. The Hurricanes stopped him on their goal-line and the Crusaders piled in . But their piling-in was illegal and they were penalised.
Back came the Crusaders but after 12 phases they were again penalised and then marched on 10 metres for grabbing tap-kicking Perenara within 10 metres.
From the line-out Callum Gibbins broke on a strong run to put the Hurricanes on the attack.
The Crusaders won a turnover and Drummond kicked. Goosen caught the ball and was swamped by Crusader forwards who were penalised for going over the ball. From nine metres inside the Crusader half, Jordie Barrett kicked a soaring penalty goal. 31-22 with just three minutes left.
The Crusaders were all charging effort but the Hurricanes won the ball and Perenara kicked out to end the match and make sure that the Hurricanes went to Canberra while the Crusaders sweated on the match in Durban between the Lions and the Sharks.
Man of the Match: A match is won by the team scoring the most points, the Laws of the Game say, and the player scoring the most points in the team that scored the most points was Jordie Barrett. He settled into centre after a shaky start and missed Israel Dagg but his positive contribution of a try and excellent goal-kicking wins him our award.
Tries: Barrett, J Savea, Goosen, Fifitia
Cons: Barrett 4
Tries: Tamanivalu 2, Dagg
Cons: Mo’unga 2
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Otere Black, 9 Thomas Perenara (captain), 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Cory Jane, 23 Ben Lam
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd (captain), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Sean Wainui
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill, Angus Mabey
TMO: Glenn Newman