Hooker Asafo Aumua and halfback Jamie Booth were absent from the named team. That left the Hurricanes to make a late scramble for changes, one of whom, halfback Logan Henry, scored a decisive try to seal the win. Hooker Raymond Tuputupu had to join the side from Palmerston North only four hours before kick-off.
Hurricanes coach Jason Holland was delighted with the adaptability shown under the circumstances.
Henry had been with the side for much of the pre-season and did well when running on.
"He just hasn't had the opportunity so it was great to see. I think it was his first touch when he scored the try, so it's pretty cool for Logs," he said.
The try came after another replacement Peter Umaga-Jensen made a superb break to pierce the defence and find Logan running inside in support.
"We back Pete to get the ball out the back and have a one-on-one crack. That's what we're trying to achieve on our attack.
"Pete did well, and it was a great little inside ball. It was a massive moment.
"We had to score next. I said in the box that 14 isn't going to be enough to win the game," he said.
Highlanders' coach Tony Brown said his side needed to take responsibility to curb the mistakes that undermined the dominance they achieved in possession and territory.
"We did everything but score any points. We had 21 turnovers which are just not good enough at this level.
"We're not executing in that last metre. Everything seems to be going against us when we get a metre away from the line. Even the referee and TMO.
"We've lost our mojo, and we need to find it quickly otherwise we're staring down a pretty tough season," he said.
Brown said the inability to capitalise on chances was frustrating.
"When you see guys dropping the ball with the line open, and getting hard with their skills one metre out, it's just tough to watch," he said.
The contest had been tough on starting halfback Folau Fakatava.
Brown said he found starting the game involved differences in intensity and physicality.
"He hasn't played a lot of rugby, and he'll be better for it next week. He's also got to learn not to take everyone on by himself," he said.