Ackermann - 'There were a lot of grey-hair moments'

Coach Johan Ackermann feared that Saturday's 23-21 Super Rugby quarter-final win over the Sharks could have been his Lions swansong.

The Sharks looked on course to cause a major upset leading 21-20 with just two minutes left on the clock but Lions winger Ruan Combrinck's 78th-minute long-distance penalty spared the blushes of the home side.

Ackermann, who was in charge of the side that got to the final last year only to be beaten at the final hurdle by the Hurricanes, will leave South Africa for English side Gloucester at the end of this season’s Super Rugby campaign.

And the Lions mentor is mightily relieved that he still has a chance to avenge that defeat when his side host the defending champions in the semi-final next weekend.

“There were a lot of grey-hair moments and I was thinking, this can't be the way I am going to end my time with the Lions,” Ackermann told Reuters.

“We'll take it, but credit to the Sharks. They put us under a lot of pressure. But we also put ourselves on the back foot. At halftime I told the players to lift the intensity and play wider.

“Our decision-making wasn't the best. Hopefully, we can improve that for next weekend. There were opportunities to run and we still kicked sometimes. We must finish those opportunities.

“The whole 80 minutes wasn't good enough. We were lucky to get away with the victory. We have to be better.”

The Lions now have a chance for payback against the Hurricanes after last year’s 20-3 final loss in Wellington.

“I haven't even thought about that,” Ackermann said. “Today was just about getting through to the next round.”

Blue Bulls win 96-point thriller

Griquas fought from the beginning to the end and definitely made the Blue Bulls think, but the visitors eventually won 51-45 in Kimberley.

The hosts were competitive throughout the first half, but the Bulls took a six point lead by the break at 20-26 having scored four tries and converted three. Griquas scored two converted tries and two penalties in the half with André Swarts successfully kicking everything.

The Blue Bulls opened the scoring with a try from Abongile Nonkontwana but the Griquas quickly responded with a try from Ederies Arendse. Piet van Zyl, who had a good game overall, scored next as he leapt over a few tackled players to ground the ball over the line.

Warrick Gelant gave away a penalty and the Bulls made a few handling errors as Griquas took the lead. The most damaging of these errors was a pass that was quickly intercepted by Enver Brandt, who raced past everyone to score the next try for the Griquas. The conversion and a penalty goal from Swarts pushed the Griquas' lead to eight points.

The Blue Bulls then played disciplined rugby for the rest of the half, with Jaco Visagie and Duncan Matthews scoring two brilliant tries and Tinus de Beer converting them.

The second half started with Griquas quickly taking back the lead in the game with a penalty goal from Swarts and a long range try from Christiaan Meyer. The Bulls were punished for their loose passes first by Brandt in the first half and then by Meyer in the second, both scoring tries.

The defining moment in the game was when the Griquas captain was shown a yellow card. AJ Coertzen was sent to the sin bin for cynical play and the Bulls made the most of this chance. They increased the pace of the game and scored a penalty and two tries while the Griquas were a player short. Gelant scored the first try during this period and Andre Warner scored the second. Warner’s try was one of the highlights of the game as the Bulls ran nice angles and at good pace before Warner cut inside Travis Ismaiel to score.

Griquas fought their way back with two important tries and the Blue Bulls looked like they were under pressure. Brandt’s second try of the night was just as spectacular as the first one. He received the pass on the wing and accelerated past the Bulls defence to go all the way. The Griquas were in the lead, but Ismaiel’s try ensured that the Bulls took their lead back and they went on to win the game.

The scorers:

For Griquas:
Tries: Arendse, Brandt, Meyer, Van Rensburg, Brandt
Cons: Swarts 4
Pens: Swarts 4
Yellow Card: Coertzen

For Blue Bulls:
Tries: Nonkontwana, Van Zyl, Visagie, Matthews, Gelant, Warner, Ismaiel
Cons: De Beer 3, Stander 2
Pens: De Beer, Gelant

Griquas: 15 AJ Coertzen (c), 14 Ederies Arendse, 13 Tertius Kruger, 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Koch Marx, 10 André Swarts, 9 Christiaan Meyer, 8 Jonathan Janse van Rensburg, 7 Sias Koen, 6 RJ Liebenberg, 5 FP Pelser, 4 Mzwanele Zito, 3 Ewald van der Westhuizen, 2 AJ le Roux, 1 Liam Hendricks
Replacements: 16 Marius Fourie, 17 Nicolaas Oosthuizen, 18 Jonathan Adendorf, 19 Wendal Wehr, 20 Poerie van Rooyen, 21 George Whitehead, 23 Enver Brandt

Blue Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Franco Naude, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Duncan Matthews, 10 Tony Jantjies, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Nic de Jager, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Boom Prinsloo (c), 5 Abongile Nonkontwana, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Conraad van Vuuren, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 John-Roy Jenkinson, 18 Freddy Ngoza, 19 Shaun Adendorff, 20 Andre Warner, 21 Tinus de Beer, 22 JT Jackson

Referee: AJ Jacobs
Assistant Referees: Jaco Pretorius, Darren Colby
TMO: JJ Wagner

Chiefs squeeze past Stormers in Cape Town

The Chiefs secured the final Super Rugby semi-final berth when they claimed a 17-11 victory over the Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday.

In a closely contested and attritional battle, both sides scored a try apiece with Damian McKenzie's boot proving the difference in the end as he finished with a 12-point haul, courtesy of four penalties.

The Chiefs led 9-3 at half-time thanks to three penalties from McKenzie with the Stormers' only points coming via the boot of SP Marais.

The opening exchanges was a measured affair as both sides battled to gain the ascendancy and although the Stormers had the bulk of the possession during the opening quarter, neither side could score any points during this period.

The home side eventually took the lead in the 24th minute courtesy of a Marais penalty but on the hour-mark McKenzie restored parity with a three-pointer off the kicking tee.

Shortly afterwards, the Stormers were penalised at the breakdown and McKenzie slotted his second penalty which meant the hosts held a slender three-point lead as the half draw to a close.

And on the stroke of half-time, McKenzie succeeded with his third shot at goal - after Damian de Allende was blown up for illegal play at a ruck inside his 22 - which meant the Chiefs held a slight edge as the teams changed sides at the interval.

The Stormers were fastest out of the blocks in the second half and piled on the pressure with pick up and goes from their forwards shortly after the restart.

That tactic soon reaped rewards and after taking the ball through numerous phases deep inside the Chiefs' 22, Dewaldt Duvenhage got a pass out to EW Viljoen who drew in the final defender before offloading to Siya Kolisi who crossed in the right-hand corner.

Marais failed to convert and three minutes later, McKenzie slotted his fourth penalty after the Stormers' backs strayed offside on defence. The next 10 minutes was a war of attrition but neither side scored points during this period.

The Chiefs suffered a setback on the hour-mark when Sam Cane was sent to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Dillyn Leyds. And although the Stormers spent most of the next 10 minutes camped inside the Chiefs' half, a 63rd minute penalty from Marais was the only points they could score during this period.

Marais had an opportunity to give his side the lead from the kicking tee just before Cane returned from his stint on the sidelines but he pushed his penalty attempt wide of the uprights.

That proved costly as four minutes before full-time, the Chiefs launched an attack inside the Stormers' 22 and Aaron Cruden caught the home side's defence napping when he threw a perfectly-weighted long pass to Stevenson who cantered over the whitewash for the match-winning try.

The scorers:

For Stormers:
Pens: Marais 2

For Chiefs:
Pens: McKenzie 4
Yellow Card: Sam Cane

Stormers: 15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Dewaldt Duvenhagek, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg 
Replacements: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Seabelo Senatla, 23 Juan de Jongh

Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Solomon Alaimalo, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Mitchell Brown, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames 
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Shaun Stevenson

Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Rasta Rasivhenge, Quinton Immelman
TMO: Johan Greeff

Combrinck the hero for Lions

A 78th minute long-range penalty from Ruan Combrinck saw the Lions recover to beat the Sharks 23-21 in their quarter-final on Saturday.

From 58 metres out the Lions wing sent the ball over the crossbar to break Sharks hearts and set up a semi-final clash with the Hurricanes.

It had looked like the Sharks would be heading to Wellington after tries from Kobus van Wyk and Dan du Preez, along with the boot of Curwin Bosch, put them 21-20 in front with two minutes left on the clock at Ellis Park.

But up stepped Combrinck to nail the long-range kick for his side, whose try scorers were Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel and Lionel Mapoe, as they now welcome the Hurricanes to Johannesburg in what will be a thrilling game.

Few gave the Sharks a hope of beating the Lions on their home patch, but with a 14-3 lead at half-time a shock win was most definitely on.

Elton Jantjies was out of sorts and missed two simple penalties while Bosch was on song with a drop-goal also chucked in for good measure.

The Lions were eager to flex their muscles early on and turned down a shot at goal in favour of the corner, with the Sharks doing well to keep them at bay. Eventually they did go for the posts but Jantjies struck the upright, much to the surprise of the Johannesburg faithful.

Seconds later though the Lions fly-half did knock over three points after Sharks second-row Etienne Oosthuizen had taken out Mapoe.

Then came a moment of madness from the Lions as from a quickly taken lineout loose passes saw the Sharks gather and Van Wyk score wide out.

The Sharks made it 8-3 on 17 minutes thanks to a Bosch drop-goal and with Jantjies missing again soon after, the Lions fans looked worried.

Bosch extended the Sharks' lead to eight points on 35 minutes and then struck again, this time from distance, to make it 14-3 at the break.

The Lions needed to regroup and fortunately for the home support they began to find some rhythm early in the second-half. Their hopes were improved too when Stephan Lewies was yellow carded for offside after referee Marius van der Westhuizen had issued a team warning to them.

That sparked the Lions and confidence returned as Mostert's short carry saw him cross on 47 minutes before sustained possession and territory five minutes later led to Kriel crashing over. Again though, on both tries, Jantjies missed his conversion attempts so they still trailed.

But that all changed when from a quick tap in their own half the Lions countered via Harold Vorster, who set up his centre partner Mapoe for a clear run-in. Jantjies this time added the two points which meant the Lions led 20-14. That though was the fly-half's last offering.

The Sharks were far from done though and moved back in front on 66 minutes when number eight Du Preez barged over off the back of a scrum. That crossing came following Mostert being yellow carded for pulling down a maul. With Bosch's easy conversion they went 21-20 up.

The Lions were still struggling off the tee and this time it was Combrinck who was wayward, missing a chance to edge his side ahead.

But he would make no such mistake with two minutes to play from 58 metres out after Sharks full-back Lwazi Mvovo was offside, to send the crowd wild, with the Lions holding on for the remaining seconds to secure a home semi.

The scorers:

For Lions:
Tries: Mostert, Kriel, Mapoe
Con: Jantjies
Pens: Jantjies, Combrinck
Yellow Card: Mostert

For Sharks:
Tries: Van Wyk, D du Preez
Con: Bosch
Pens: Bosch 2
Drop Goal: Bosch
Yellow Card: Lewies

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Akker vd Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza

Sharks: 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 S’busiso Nkosi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt (c), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit
Replacements: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Jean Droste, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Jeremy Ward

Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Referees: Jaco van Heerden, Egon Seconds
TMO: Marius Jonker

Brown bemoans Highlanders' discipline

Highlanders head coach Tony Brown slammed his side's poor discipline and error count after their quarter-final loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday.

With heavy rain prevalent throughout, the 2015 champions battled to get going as the Crusaders dominated for large periods and eventually claimed a deserved 17-0 victory.

And to make matters worse, the Highlanders had to play with 14 men for 10 minutes in the first half after Liam Squire was sent to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Richie Mo'unga.

"Tough night at the office for us," Brown told Stuff after the match.

"In those conditions they were just too good for us tonight. Obviously pretty dominant up front and we just gave away too many penalties in that first half, which gave them all the territory, put us under pressure and they eventually scored two tries from our penalties."

First half tries from Joe Moody and Codie Taylor helped the Crusaders to a 17-0 lead at half-time and although no points were scored in the second half, the Highlanders continued to concede penalties and their lineout was also misfiring.

"In wet weather rugby your lineout needs to function and your scrum needs to function," added Brown. 

"We probably weren't as good as we normally have been this year, but it goes back to the Crusaders being really dominant in that defensive lineout and being really powerful in the scrum."

Highlanders captain Ben Smith echoed his coach's sentiments but complimented the Crusaders.

"I don't think our discipline was quite where it needed to be," he said. 

"Against a team like the Crusaders you've got to be really on your game.

"You just can't let them get into your zone by giving away penalties and that's probably what we did at times... but we've got to give a lot of credit to how the Crusaders played."

Coles cherishing every moment

Dane Coles says playing for the Hurricanes is something he will never take for granted again after featuring in the 35-16 quarter-final win over the Brumbies.

It was Coles' first match in four months after being sidelined with concussion problems and numerous other injuries. The 30-year-old, 49-test All Black admits he pondered retirement at one point and wondered whether he would ever be able to chalk up the 50-mark milestone for the All Blacks.

Coles initally covered for Ricky Riccitelli early in the match after the starting hooker went for a Head Injury Assessment and then permanently replaced him in the 50th minute.

And the world-class number two showed some excellent touches, including his assist for TJ Perenara's game-sealing try in which he shrugged off three Brumbies defenders and showed tremendous pace before timing his pass perfectly to the scrum-half.

And Coles has spoken of his immense relief at being back on the park, saying the dark times has helped him learnt to cherish every moment.

"It was an awesome feeling to be back on the pitch with the lads," Coles told Stuff.

"It's been a pretty hard four months, and to do something I love, just to put the Canes jersey back on, was a great feeling. It means a lot to me to wear this jersey.

"It was something I thought had been taken away from me, but to do it again ... words can't really describe how I'm feeling at the moment. I'm just happy to be amongst it and doing something that I love.

"I know it's a cliche, but to have something taken away from you, and in the situation I was in I wasn't sure if I'd be able to pull on the Hurricanes jersey again, there's definitely a new appreciation. You've just got to cherish these moments a bit more and never take it for granted, I suppose."

Coles admits there were a lot of butterflies in the stomach in the build-up to the game but he felt that he settled quicker than expected.

"I didn't have much time to think. Once you're in the thick of the game it goes pretty fast, you're making runs or tackling or scrummaging. I was pretty nervous all day but once I'm amongst it, I'm just doing my job.

"Just to be a part of it and contributing to the team is something I've hated missing. When you're out there, you feel you're doing your part to contribute. That's massive for me. We've earned another Monday, and we'll see where we go next week."

Larkham full of praise for Lealiifano

Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham hailed Christian Lealiifano after the centre made his comeback in Friday's quarter-final loss to the Hurricanes in Canberra.

Lealiifano returned to action less than one year after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was set to play against the Reds in Brisbane two weeks ago but injured his hamstring on the eve of that match and the Brumbies opted not to risk him in their final regular season match against the Chiefs last weekend.

Lealiifano came on earlier than anticipated against the Hurricanes, after a head knock ended James Dargaville's game, but Larkham said it was pivotal on and off the field.

"We weren’t planning on bringing him on at half-time but we were certainly bringing him on at some stage in the second half and it was good to see him out there," he said.

"It was a little bit emotional to see him in the change rooms take his bib off and I thought he played exceptionally well.

"He had a number of nice touches on the field, a couple of good carries, a couple of kicks.

"Hopefully we’re going to see a lot more of him next year."

Crusaders repel the Highlanders

The Crusaders advanced to the Super Rugby semi-finals with a 17-0 victory over the Highlanders at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday.

Tries from Joe Moody and Codie Taylor proved too much for the Highlanders who went scoreless.

A state of emergency had been declared in Christchurch and Otago due to flooding. This meant the Highlanders were not able to fly out to Christchurch on Friday as their plane was grounded. Instead, they only arrived at 13:30pm on Saturday which must have affected their pre-match preparations.

It was a match played in extremely wet and cold conditions and both sides had to adapt their usual attacking tactics for a tighter, more controlled game.

The result means the Crusaders continue their excellent playoff record in which they have never lost a home playoff match over 16 games.

The Crusaders adjusted to the conditions better and completely dominated possession and territory. They kept hold of the ball well despite the difficult conditions whereas the Highlanders could not and often kicked possession away cheaply.

The Highlanders were forced to make a slew of tackles and had already made 100 tackles after 50 minutes compared to the Crusaders' 38. This is simply because the Crusaders' ball retention was far superior.

Also, the Highlanders were guilty of indiscipline, giving away seven penalties compared to the Crusaders' two in the first-half. The second half was different and saw no penalties conceded in minutes 40-60.

It is not often the Highlanders are kept to zero, which is a combination of how good the Crusaders were and the conditions.

The Highlanders were dealt an early blow when Liam Squire was yellow-carded for a reckless tackle with five minutes gone on the clock. Richie Mo'unga put the Crusaders into a 3-0 lead from the resulting penalty.

The away side were guilty of more indiscipline but this time Mo'unga let them off the hook as he missed a routine penalty.

The wet conditions meant points were going to be at a premium with both sides opting for poles when on offer. Unfortunately, Mo'unga was having difficulty planting his standing foot on the slippery surface and missed a second successive penalty.

From the next penalty, the Crusaders opted for touch five metres out instead of pointing to the poles. After some patient, controlled carrying around the fringes, Moody eventually burst over after 15 phases vindicating his decision not to take the three points. Mo'unga added the extras to extend the Crusaders' lead to 10-0.

Three minutes before half-time, a Crusaders try was controversially ruled out when their unstoppable driving maul crashed over the line but the TMO ruled that it had been held up.

However, the Crusaders were not going to be denied their try. From the resulting five-metre scrum, they once again patiently worked the ball around the fringes through their big forwards. This time hooker Taylor burrowed over. Mo'unga converted the try as the home side took a 17-0 lead into the half-time break.

Both sides did well to repel each other in the second-half but offered little on attack. In fact, no points were scored in the second stanza despite the Highlanders' efforts to run the ball.

They kept trying until the end but in the terrible conditions it always looked an impossible task to come from so far behind and win, especially against a Crusaders defence that refused to break in what was an impressive victory.

The scorers:

For Crusaders:
Tries: Moody, Taylor
Cons: Mo'unga 2
Pen: Mo'unga 

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Elliot Dixon, 22 Kayne Hammington, 23 Marty Banks

Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe, Mike Fraser
TMO: Glenn Newman

Boyd slams 'sloppy' performance

Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has bemoaned his side's 'sloppy' performance despite running out 35-16 victors over the Brumbies in their Super Rugby quarter-final in Canberra on Friday.

The Hurricanes will play either the Lions or Sharks in the semi-finals, with the two South African franchises to clash in Johannesburg later on Saturday.

And Boyd has echoed captain TJ Perenara's sentiments that the Wellington outfit were below-par.

"TJ (Perenara) just said it was a sloppy performance for us and it was," Boyd told the Canberra Times.

"We were really disappointed at halftime.

"I think it's our poorest performance in the last three games we've played and we can't walk away happy.

"At times we were terrible and we won ugly but we can't keep doing that."

Meanwhile, All Black hooker Dane Coles has reflected on his return to action following four months on the sidelines battling concussion symptoms and numerous other injuries.

"My lungs were hissing a bit, but I was just trying to go at it and have a bit of fun and enjoy it," Coles said

"It's been a long time watching footy, awesome to be back and out on the field for the boys.

"Really sore today, it's a good sign that I got through a bit of work."

Carter hails Larkham legacy

Brumbies skipper Sam Carter has paid tribute to coach Stephen Larkham following their 35-16 quarter-final defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes.

Larkham is leaving his post as Brumbies head coach to join the Wallabies as full-time assistant coach.

After the game, Larkham said the result was too fresh to properly reflect on his incredible legacy at the club as both player and coach.

But his skipper Carter summed things up succinctly.

“Half the stadium is named after him so it’s a pretty good legacy,” Carter told Fox Sports Australia.

“Bernie’s been here the whole time I’ve been here and has been massive for my development.

“I know he’s very close with Christian, he’s brought him a long way and the whole squad, the organisation has been part of his whole life.

“I don’t actually know what he’s going to do when he leaves.

“I’ve got nothing but praise for what Bernie’s done.

“It’s a very organic club and what we’ve achieved this year — although it’s disappointing tonight — has been far more than what we set out at the start.”

Meanwhile, Larkham has reflected on Christian Lealifano's unbelievable return to the pitch less than a year since being diagnosed with leukaemia.

“It was pretty emotional to see him in the changing rooms, take his bib off and get ready to go out on the field and I thought he played particularly well,” Larkham said.

“He had a number of nice touches, a couple of good carries, a couple of good kicks and hopefully we’re going to see a lot more of him next year.”

Larkham went on to say said his side dominated the Hurricanes in the first half but were unlucky to go into the half-time break with only a one-point lead. Larkham cited Jordie Barrett's fortuitous try, two Wharenui Hawera penalties hitting the post and the collapsing of a Brumbies maul over the visitors' try-line that went unpunished by referee Glen Jackson.

“Does that change things (in terms of the result), I don’t know,” Larkham wondered out loud.

“We were written off at the start of the year, they said we were going to come fourth in the Australian conference but we achieved a few things this year.”