Highlanders juggernaut marches on

JON CARDINELLI reports on the Highlanders’ forward-driven 18-17 win over the Waratahs on Saturday.

The one-point margin wasn’t reflective of the Highlanders’ dominance up front, and coach Jamie Joseph will lament the fact that they didn’t win this clash by a more comfortable margin. They missed three kicks at goal while two tries was a mediocre return considering they bossed territory and possession for large periods.

What Joseph will be pleased about is their unbeaten record. Despite a slew of injuries before the start of the season, they have gone on to win three matches.

Their forwards have displayed an aggressive yet controlled approach to the breakdown that has meant the difference on all three occasions. Their backs haven’t quite fired and the tactical play and decision-making has been inconsistent, but they have banked the points where it matters: on the Super Rugby log.

They started this game in impressive fashion, playing the game at a high-tempo and stretching what is usually a well-organised Waratahs defence. Lima Sopoaga broke the line before smartly offloading to halfback partner Aaron Smith who did well to finish for the game’s first try.

But credit to the Waratahs, although they were starved of possession they scrapped to stay in the contest. They were guilty of missing a number of first time tackles but generally managed to absorb the pressure when the Highlanders launched a multiphase attack.

Indeed, the Highlanders were often guilty of building an attack from deep in their own half and then losing possession via a handling error or turnover. It was one of the reasons why they went to the break trailing 9-8 instead of enjoying a comfortable lead.

Slade started the game at fullback but moved to No 10 when Sopoaga left the field injured in the first half. He never looked comfortable in the flyhalf channel, and had a kick charged down by Waratahs flanker Pat McCutcheon early in the second stanza.

Unfortunately for the visitors, Daniel Halangahu had a rare mental lapse, pushing the conversion attempt wide. Had he been successful, he would have stretched the Waratahs’ lead to eight points, a commanding advantage in spite of the Highlanders dominance at the tackle point.

The Highlanders grew in confidence as the half progressed, and finally one of their multi-phase movements paid dividends with John Hardie crashing over in the corner. Slade then held his nerve to nail a touchline conversion and hand the hosts the lead at 15-14.

Slade and Halangahu exchanged further penalties before the All Blacks flyhalf was presented with a chance to close out the game. His long-range attempt was wide and short, and allowed the Waratahs to regain possession and launch a counter-attack.

The visitors played themselves into a promising position as the clock wound down, and were controlling possession well before the ball bobbled onto the Highlanders side and was swooped on by captain Jamie Mackintosh. Reserve scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan then made a hash of getting the ball out, but fortunately for the hosts, Tamati Ellison retrieved the wayward kick and ended the game by running into touch.