Highlanders Outstanding in Front of Full House

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Only just completed, this Friday night match in New Zealand (NZ) Super Rugby had the current Champions, the Highlanders playing the Crusaders team. A ‘full house’ sign was placed outside Forsyth-Barr Stadium for the first time ever for this ‘Battle of the Mainland’ and the crowd excitement was matched (and more) by the Highlanders outstanding performance.

Several players in the side deserve a mention, as each ‘department’ performed their roles admirably: Ben Smith [obviously] Lima Sopoaga, Matt Faddes, Waisake Naholo, Luke Whitelock and Elliot Dixon.

Winning 34-26 this reflects the high-scoring game that began with the team in red, the Crusaders actually in the ascendancy. They seemingly scored tries at will, but the ‘fine detail scrutiny’ under slow-motion replay brought the players down to ground each time. They had performed high fives and were resting on each occasion, having to trudge way back upfield to a scrum penalty. Hard luck; they certainly would have been tries in years gone by honestly, so the chances were only just falling short.

Crusaders fans believed it would be a continuation of the recent match statistics–visitors winning four of last five matches. Numbers are not a big subject north of Oamaru though, in terms of rugby stats that is. They work on shear effort alone, leave the numbers to the lineout calls and ‘cattle ear tags’. The southern men soon gained parity in most phases and had good field position in the redzone at the 20 minute mark, when the first serious attacking move was converted into Highlanders points.

Lima Sopoaga is in the top three kickers in Super Rugby. A great number for a back, he is a true place kicker so his single penalty against Richie Mounga’s nine points was the only points difference up until Sopoaga put in the perfect flat kick across to a waiting Waisake Naholo, for the winger to score and continue his rapid return from injury. Pinpoint, it was a type of Rugby League play and after early season of a recurring leg issue, Naholo’s removal up until now had fans keenly awaiting his return.

This second game for Naholo in Landers colours came after playing a club game a fortnight ago and it seems that was all the preparation this Fijian winger needed to carry on a record of six straight games in a row scoring a try (or more than one) Only Chris Latham from the old ACT Brumbies has bettered that sequence, and Naholo has scored four tries in two games now. Simply outstanding combination between first-five and winger.

The forwards weren’t standing idol though. Total tackles were 126, of that 84% completion versus a worrying 77% for the Crusaders. A worry, because the Christchurch team opened well but they lost composure, unsettled by the confidence exuded by the Highlanders team, none more so than Luke Whitelock. The ex-Canterbury man from the ‘brothers Whitelock clan’, he had taken some hits himself that seemed to waken his appetite for punishment that you need in the modern game [ask Richie] and once the tries began, he and his pack were on the hunt for turnover ball.

He bashed into the likes of Kieran Read (the skipper thought he had an early try) and Whitelock feared no Crusader, even smashing into brother Sam a few times. His great effort for 75 minutes, a quality outing in the number eight jersey that was matched by his forwards all doing a superb collective job that Joseph will be pleased with. They were congratulated by commentator and ex-All Black Justin Marshall. “The culture and the ticker that this Highlanders team has is wonderful”.

If Naholo could score twice, than another fine Otago boy has put in a huge effort since being asked to move in one spot for this Highlanders backline to allow Naholo a wing berth. Matt Faddes was named the Highlanders ‘Man of the Match’ and his effort began after 31 minutes when the side had again invaded the Crusaders half. This first half opportunity was critical and when a well-worked lineout play went across to Faddes, he showed some speed to run 35 metres.

In the second half, he did it again but this time he blitzed the defence and resembled Frank Bunce against South Africa in 1997. Not that Faddes is 35 years old, but he is a true grassroots player that has taken the step up and is succeeding after a few half-chances. He epitomizes the Tony Brown style of backline–solid, dependable and when inspired, unstoppable.

A telling moment came after 65 minutes, when an offensive-tackle on the sideline had both Faddes and the amazing Elliot Dixon haul a Crusader player out  over the sideline winning a lineout. The two of them personified the effort put in, with Dixon all over the park. While Dixon didn’t score a try he was a big part of the result, like Whitelock. They were under pressure after lock Joe Wheeler was marched for a suspect ‘shouder charge’ call, it could have caused them a big turnaround in points, like they encountered against the Warataahs [only won 26-30] Dixon said ‘no, not tonight’ and the potential All Black was all-over the park and his athleticism will take him far in the game.

The Crusaders fought back, Jordan Taufua looking to start a comeback but it was too individual for mine. They had contributions from many, but it was as complete as the team facing them.

The big moment that sealed the win was scored by Liam Squire, after some well directed attack. Ben Smith was a key part of everything tonight: high kicks taken and attacked, good field position and some nice wide passes that freed up his outside backs were notable. As was his running back into support, and he popped a short ball in the final ten minutes that led to Squire crossing the line, and post-game he was truly happy with his sides overall performance. Talking with SkySport, he first thanked the big crowd for their support and commented “this team really appreciates it [the support] and yeah, I think we got put under pressure and managed to get back into the game”.

Asked what it was that they spoke of at halftime, he remarked “we knew we had to get points on the board, but we also had to do a lot of defending. Really proud of my team” which is an Otago way of saying ‘he was stoked about the win’. Simple stuff, score more points=win. Smith has a big heart and is an inspiration, but was well equaled by Faddes in effectiveness tonight who looks as good at centre as Richard Buckman did last season.

Following him on camera was the new All Blacks captain, and Read mentioned post game how his side had “let the foot off the throat”. True, and while it was as a result from a switch in attitude from defence to attack by the Highlanders, there were periods where the Crusaders got into a niggly game, which Wyatt Crockett was guilty of. As men like Taufua tackled their hearts out, little penalties and free-kicks gave the Highlanders field position and no amount of kicking from Israel Dagg could save them tonight [Dagg scored a consolation try right on 80 minutes]

A match where the Champions reinforced some favoritism and had many in media, like myself, considering this Highlanders outstanding win to be a fine example of where this team are heading. Back to the top of the NZ Super Rugby standings that is.

Super Rugby NZ Conference –  #1: Crusaders 37 points | Chiefs 37 | Highlanders 37

Only by a points differential now of +/- 18 points does the Crusaders side hold onto this top spot, essentially as they have played one less game. The Chiefs sit out their final bye this weekend, as the Highlanders go into their last bye week now. How important will the next two rounds be in the NZ conference is anyone’s guess, but watching tonight’s match, fans will have walked away knowing that the brand of rugby that the Highlanders play, combined with a determined defence, is going to set them up as real contenders.


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