May 12 (Reuters) - Julian Savea stunned the Highlanders on their home turf with a try six minutes from time to secure a rousing 26-20 victory for the Hurricanes in their Super Rugby match in Dunedin on Friday and keep the Wellington side’s playoff hopes alive.
The jet-heeled winger fended off prop Chris King then burned away from a clutch of defenders to plant the ball at the right corner and silence a boisterous crowd under the transparent roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The win kept the Hurricanes within striking distance of the top six and left the shocked Highlanders vulnerable to tumbling out of it, should the Sharks beat the Perth-based Western Force at home in Durban.
“The boys just stuck at it. We gave them more chances than we should have but we’ve got a lot of character,” Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith said in a pitchside interview.
”That was some of the best footy we’ve played... that’s a great step up.
“We’ve struggled against the Highlanders, I think that’s three losses (before tonight) and it’s nice to turn one around.”
The Highlanders held a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter after a brace of tries but were pegged back repeatedly by Hurricanes flyhalf Beauden Barrett.
The impressive youngster slotted four penalties and two conversion kicks from varying angles to compile a 16-point haul.
The Highlanders had the lion’s share of possession after Barrett had slotted an early penalty and flyhalf Chris Noakes streamed through a gaping hole in the Hurricanes line to plant their first try on the right in the 14th minute.
Flanker Adam Thomson ploughed over from two metres out and just left of the posts less than seven minutes later, but two straight penalty goals from Barrett left the visitors trailing only 14-9 at halftime.
The match officials conspired to deny the Highlanders a try seven minutes after the break when inside centre Phil Burleigh broke through the line and touched the ball down next to the flag.
After a lengthy video review, the try was disallowed to the disdain of local fans and while Noakes knocked over a penalty kick, the disappointed Highlanders lost their focus for long enough to allow Savea to set up flanker Faifili Levave for a try near the left corner two minutes later.
Barrett slotted a penalty to put the Hurricanes ahead in the 67th minute, but replacement back Mike Delany replied with one for the home side four minutes later to snatch back the lead.
Savea’s late try and Barrett’s subsequent conversion took the wind out of the Highlanders’ sails, however, and the Hurricanes defended grimly to protect the lead for the last few minutes.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by John O‘Brien)