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Highlanders edge Hurricanes 18-16 to step up playoff bid in Super Rugby

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Flyhalf Hayden Parker added a dropped goal to a succession of five penalties to propel the Highlanders to an 18-16 win over the Hurricanes on Friday, adding impetus to their bid for a playoff place in Super Rugby.

Parker snapped his dropped goal from close range in the 64th minute to force the third lead change of a tight match and give the Dunedin-based Highlanders their first lead in 41 minutes.

The Wellington-based Hurricanes scored the only try of the match through scrumhalf TJ Perenara in the 37th. Perenara had a second try, a potential match-winner, disallowed because of obstruction five minutes from fulltime.

Friday's win, which lifted the Highlanders into second place in the New Zealand conference and into fourth place overall at the start of the tournament's 14th round, significantly boosted their playoff hopes. They came into the match in seventh place, just below the sixth-place Hurricanes with both teams equal on 30 championships points.

The win allowed them to leapfrog the Hurricanes and, significantly, they have a match in hand as the regular season nears its end. The Highlanders have a tough run toward the playoffs with matches remaining against the seven-time champion Crusaders, who they must play twice, the defending champion Chiefs, the 2011 champion Queensland Reds and the New South Wales Waratahs.

The Hurricanes have one match fewer to come because of a bye in the last round and must play the Chiefs twice, the Blues and the Crusaders in an equally difficult finish to the season. Their loss on Friday in a match they were widely expected to win was severely damaging to their playoffs hopes.

"I'm just trying to work out how we lost that," Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith said. "It was always going to be tight, I suppose, between two very good sides.

"They're a very good defensive side. It became really tight early on and I suppose both sides began playing pretty conservatively."

The Hurricanes had the better of a close first half and, with Perenara's try, took a 13-9 lead to halftime. They tried to play their traditional running game but the Highlanders were effective in slowing their ball at the breakdown and shutting down their options out wide.

Perenara's try was contentious. He skirted a scrum five meters from the Highlanders line, reached over when the ball emerged and batted it out of the hands of Aaron Smith, then recovered the loose ball to score. Whether he should have been allowed to lean over a scrum was doubtful but he showed initiative in creating the chance.

All Blacks flyhalf Beaden Barrett kicked two early penalties for the Hurricanes but he was forced to give up the goal-kicking after an apparent leg injury midway through the first half. He finally left the field with 20 minutes remaining.

In his absence, fullback Andre Taylor converted Perenara's try and added a penalty, then missed two penalties, including a close-range effort in the 70th minute which was pivotal.

Parker landed five consecutive penalties for the Highlanders and made the shrewd decision to take a dropped goal chance from broken play in the 64th minute, giving his team their final 18-16 lead.

Perenara dived through a ruck for what might have been the winning try in the 75th minute but his effort was disallowed by the television match official, who ruled an obstruction on Aaron Smith.

___

Highlanders 18 (Hayden Parker 5 penalties, dropped goal), Hurricanes 16 (TJ Perenara try; Andre Taylor conversion, penalty; Beauden Barrett 2 penalties). HT: 9-13.

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