Lima Sopoaga kicked a storm to give the Highlanders a 35–31 win over the fast-finishing Hurricanes in Dunedin on Friday, but it was his storming break seven minutes into the second half that broke the game open.
Sopoaga landed two conversions and seven penalty goals for a 25-point haul, a Highlanders record against the Hurricanes but was substituted three points short of equalling Ben Blair's Highlanders record for the most points in a game.
But not to be outdone, Beauden Barrett scored 26 points from two tries, two conversions and four penalty goals for the Hurricanes in a game dominated by the flyhalf duo.
The two sides had been playing tit for tat with penalty goals, with Sopoaga edging the home team ahead 18-9 at half time. But it was just after Barrett had landed his fourth penalty goal that Sopoaga went on a superb run which opened up the Hurricanes defences.
However, his pass to what he thought was a support player went to Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara and he kicked the ball downfield where it was taken at speed by home fullback Ben Smith.
He followed a similar path to that taken by Sopoaga moments earlier. When he found support it was halfback Aaron Smith who took the ball and fed inside to Phil Burleigh who bobbled the ball before regaining control and scoring.
The lift in the Highlanders' effort had been sparked moments earlier by a stunning spot tackle by centre Malaki Fekitoa on his All Blacks opposite Conrad Smith. Fekitoa demonstrated the defensive capacity to his game and is rapidly promoting himself as a prospective international candidate in the midfield.
The Hurricanes started to throw caution to the wind but that increased the chance for errors and so it proved when second five-eighths Hadleigh Parkes attempted a long ball to centre Conrad Smith. But as it lobbed through the air, Highlanders wing Patrick Osborne celebrated his return to the playing XV by racing away to score eight minutes later.
More ball retention created the momentum the Hurricanes had been seeking and from a driving maul at the goal-line prop Ben Franks grounded the ball over the goal-line and Barrett landed the conversion.
The Hurricanes spent much of the final quarter in the Highlanders 22m area but penalties at vital stages, in spite of the home team losing replacement lock Jarrad Hoeata to the sin-bin, cost the Hurricanes vital opportunities and they ran out of time.
Ironically, their next chance came as the Highlanders looked to cement their advantage with a dropped goal. However, Hayden Parker's kick was touch in flight and it fell short to replacement fullback Andre Taylor.
He ran the ball from in front of his goal-posts, beat three defenders before finding Perenara in support. He then had Barrett storming up on his outside and he ran away from the defence as Ben Smith was unable to halt him as he ran in for the try.
The dramatics were not over, however, as successive turnovers in the Highlanders 22m area saw Perenara get the ball and clear it quickly for Barrett to race in for his second try to get a losing bonus point. He made a dropped goal attempt at conversion and while there was a chance for a late Hurricanes recovery, a dropped ball brought the end of the game.