Impressive Highlanders on a roll
It was much closer than it needed to be, but the Highlanders confirmed their status as the most impressive team of the early rounds of Vodacom Super Rugby with a deserved 18-17 win over the Waratahs at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.
It was the second successive week that a match at the Highlanders’ home ground has gone down to the wire.
Seven days ago it was the Crusaders who were denied by a spirited Highlanders combination that has added experience and depth in key areas and in their third year under the coaching of Jamie Joseph look like realistic contenders for the title.
This time there was no confusion around the timing of the stadium clock, but as the scoreline would suggest, the game did still have a dramatic finish, with the Waratahs in the Highlanders' half of the field and pressing for either a penalty or drop-goal, which was all they needed, when the end came.
But it really shouldn’t have been so close. The Highlanders were significantly better than the Waratahs for most of the match, and always looked like the team most likely to score a try.
They dominated territory and possession, particularly in the first half, and by arriving at the breakdown with numbers they put massive pressure on the Waratahs in that crucial area.
Indeed, the physicality of the Highlanders has been to the fore for a couple of seasons now, and their ability to smash the Waratahs meant the Australians struggled to get any kind of momentum.
But where they are growing is in the quality of their allround game, particularly their attacking play. Had it not been for some woeful goalkicking and one mistake that cost a try in the second half, they would have won this game at a canter.
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The Waratahs’ challenge revolved chiefly around their scramble defence, which denied the Highlanders the extra tries that often looked likely, and the reliable goalkicking of Daniel Halangahu.
Not that the Waratahs captain was perfect with his place-kicking, and on another day we might have pointed out that his missed conversion from almost in front of the posts was ultimately the difference between the teams.
Halangahu also fell just short with a 45-metre penalty nine minutes from time, though it always looked like the kick was at the limit of his range.
But those failures were nothing compared to what the Highlanders had to endure as they first saw first-choice flyhalf Lima Sopoaga miss a conversion from virtually in front, and then after he was injured, the man who stepped up from fullback to the pivot position and replaced him as place-kicker, Colin Slade, missed a couple of regulation penalties.
One of those attempts was in an easily kickable position early in the second half to give the Highlanders the lead for the first time, but instead of succeeding in that mission, he found himself giving away a try two minutes later when a lazy clearance from his boot was charged down by Waratahs flanker Pat McCutcheon.
The flanker completed what was to be his team’s only try before being carried from the field with what looked like a serious ankle injury.
So instead of being 11-9 up the Highlanders were suddenly 14-8 behind, and Slade can be thankful that Halangahu didn’t kick the conversion to put the Waratahs more than a score ahead.
UPPED THE TEMPO
It left the Highlanders with plenty to play for, and they picked up the tempo once more by launching a series of attacks that had the Waratahs defenders floundering.
The quality of the Highlanders' attacking was quite stupendous and the try that was scored by flanker John Hardie on the corner flag came off a multiple-phase onslaught that saw almost every Highlanders player handle the ball somewhere along the way.
You could say Slade made up for his earlier misses by kicking the conversion from the touchline to give his team the lead for the first time in the game.
It didn’t last though, for with 28 minutes to go the Waratahs were back in front courtesy of another well-struck Halangahu penalty.
The Highlanders were not to be denied though, and with 15 minutes to go a long period of attack which featured great interplay between forwards and backs eventually resulted in a Slade penalty that put the hosts back into a lead that they never relinquished.
The Waratahs had hardly any of the game in the first half but two rare visits to Highlanders territory resulted in two penalties which Halangahu kicked for his team to lead 6-0 after 12 minutes.
It was the Highlanders though who were doing everything at 100 miles an hour, and there may have been some groans from Highlanders supporters when scrumhalf Aaron Smith took a quick tap from a penalty awarded right in front in the 16th minute.
Smith though had spotted a gap through which his halfback partner Sopoaga surged before returning the ball for the No 9 to score.
It was after a similar tap penalty in a similar position a short while later though that Sopoaga injured his shoulder in diving for the line. He was led from the field in some discomfort, necessitating the positional switch which saw Slade move up from the last line of defence.
The win puts the Highlanders on top of the New Zealand conference and they are also well placed on the overall log after their three tight wins, with a magnificent comeback effort against the Chiefs enabling them to squeeze in for a crucial away win against the Chiefs on the opening weekend of the competition.
Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, John Hardie. Conversion: Colin Slade. Penalties: Colin Slade (2).
Waratahs – Try: Patrick McCutcheon. Penalties: Daniel Halangahu (4).