Super Rugby 2019: Fateful substitution decisions help Hurricanes to victory

Two contrasting substitution decisions involving star players may have helped secure Super Rugby victory for the Hurricanes over the Highlanders on Friday night.

The home side conceded 14 unanswered second-half points, but maintained their composure down the stretch to haul back an eight-point deficit and kick a penalty after the final siren to emerge 25-22 winners in Wellington.

With 10 minutes remaining and trailing by five, Hurricanes coach John Plumtree had reserve hooker Asafo Aumua warming up to replace captain Dane Coles in the front row - and then thought better of it.

Aumua never got on the field and Coles stuck around to help guide his team home. It was a massive call for a player probably still finding his feet after an extended injury absence.

Seconds later, Hurricanes winger Ben Lam scored out wide to level the scores and Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger made the fateful decision to replace All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith with Kane Hammington.

While Smith was not the team captain - a role co-held by fullback Ben Smith and number eight Luke Whitelock - he was clearly the driving force behind a forward pack that had dominated its opposition all night.

Coaches often talk about modern rugby being a 23-man game and the importance of reserves stepping in to play a closing role late. Predictably, Mauger defended his choice afterwards.

"We trust Kane to come on and do the job for us in the last 10-15 minutes," he insisted afterwards. "He does it really well, so we were pretty happy with that call."

But in a contest that may have come down to leadership and discipline, that now looked like one substitution too many.

On the other hand, Plumtree's change of heart, retaining his hooker - a man tipped as a future All Blacks skipper - and halfback TJ Perenara through to the end, seemed like a stroke of genius.

"I wanted to get Asofa on tonight," he explained. "I'm really keen to see that kid go, but in a game like that, I've never been big on pulling my captain off.

"I need both TJ [Perenara] and Colesy on, with that young group around them and some inexperience.

"It would have been a big call getting either of those boys off - and they were pretty instrumental in the end, weren't they?"

As he rose to leave the post-game media conference, Plumtree was asked about Mauger's decision to pull Smith.

"Is that right, is that what he did?" he grinned. "You'll have to talk to him about that."

Instead, Mauger lamented his team's inability to "paint some better pictures for the referee" to draw their own game-winning penalty opportunity.

Very few players 'paint a picture' than Aaron Smith.