Never Any Doubt of Highlanders Character

In the opening act of the Finals Series, the Highlanders traveled to Australia in an attempt to beat the Brumbies. With recent history favouring the home side, the only guarantee was that loyal fans knew there was never any doubt of Highlanders character.

It was a hard task, made tougher by the conditions, but the formidable Dunedin side prevailed 9-15 in the rain of Canberra. The Highlander side have proven time and time again that they can absorb pressure, adapt to knockout football and move on to the semi finals.

A tremendous opening act of the four quarter finals of the Super Rugby opening playoffs, it made for an engaging weekend’s action. Three more matches on the Saturday will see fans from Wellington to Cape Town entertained. And with three thrilling games still to be played today, all that Last Word On Sports can say is “enjoy”.

 BRUMBIES v HIGHLANDERS – Friday July 22, GIO Stadium, Canberrra

That intrigue began with the game played Friday night. The 2015 Champions, the Highlanders prepared well for a team whom they had not had success against. For a champion team to recognize that, it might have played on the minds of many. From comments made by assistant coach though [and replacement for Head Coach in 2017] Tony Brown made it clear his side were traveling across in a confident mood.

“It is what it is, our boys love playing playoff games. As far as the playoffs we’ve been working towards this since December. We can’t wait to go and have a good crack at going back-to-back,” Brown said.

Never Any Doubt of Highlanders Character

Conditions deteriorated prior to kickoff, so each team would have interpreted that is slightly different ways. The home town side had one major positive when David Pocock was named to start. Out for the last few months with a broken eye socket, he was immediately a menace at the breakdown. Adding to a very much experienced Brumbies pack, they would hit hard and scrap for loose ball all night.

That was an area of disputed territory all night. The Brumbies backline was not entirely as successful though, not for the want of trying though. Tomas Cubelli is a talent who has adapted to the Australian style. Tough, feisty but he did not click with either the back of the scrum or with his backline. The one burst in the last quarter of the game did bring his side into Highlanders territory which ulrtimately should have benefited his side [more]. That final period was their opportunity to score. Sadly, their one attempt was called short due to a lack of clear evidence for the TMO decision.

Stephen Moore was playing his last season for the Brumbies, before a planned move to the Reds. Not having a fantastic season with the Wallabies, if he could lead the home team well, that would reinvigorate his term. Playing as normal, an ideal hooker but his lineout throwing was picked off late in the match by the Highlanders jumpers. Elliot Dixon and Luke Whitelock took more ball than was acceptable, especially when a planned attacking lineout failed to fire. So Moore was pulled after 60 minutes and it said something about the two sides.

Rope-a-dope rugby

In the opening half, the visitors sat back awaiting any attack. They almost sat in the ‘rope a dope’ position. A strong wind allowed them to kick long and then watch and wait for the Brumbies to run at them. Coach Stephen Larkin may have had a plan to keep the Highlanders outside backs occupied, but his young backs could not compliment that plan. Tevita Kuridrani was not breaking through the line as normal, Matt Faddes and Malakai Fekitoa doing a great job there. Halted, the ball went back to the loose forwards and they were also stopped by a highly drilled Highlanders pack.

As has been their ‘Trump card’ it was the defence which drove the Highlanders tonight, and in one rare chance they ran 70 meters and nearly crossed the line. That instantaneous attack was a fleeting opportunity but a worry for the Brumbies.

Counter-attack did result in the opening try though. Or should I say ‘the pressure applied’ led to it. The Brumbies scrambled and pushed the line, but after warnings, Angus Gardiner had seen enough. Matt Toomua paid the price with ten minutes in the bin. Spread wide, Waisake Naholo crossed on the opposite corner.

Brilliantly converted by Lima Sopoaga (main picture) it was the only highlight to be honest. Penalties and infringements made for an old fashioned battle. The wind advantage was supposed to pass that leverage on to the home side after 40 minutes. It certainly brought some territorial gains. 73% in fact, which is a massive figure and in most situations, you can count on it being worth double your opponents score.

Poorly, the home side lost what advantage could have resulted from it. In fact, the home side were too predictable. Sopoaga anticipated a pass, intercepted the ball and freed Faddes.

Few tries but a tense finish favours visitors

Faddes’ run set-up the second try to Liam Squires. That was great reward for the tall number eight. He was called in to replace Whitelock, who shifted into the locking role. It was an interesting call, but the extra loose forward was ‘inspired’. The group negated Pocock on most occasions. The visitors won 94% of their own rucks and frustrated, Moore questioned decisions from the match official.

Continuing his recent enquiries of decisions (from Super to Test level) it seemed unnecessary. His attitude seeped into his men and up until the 70th minute, they appeared to be out of their depth. The recent loss to the Blues had similar tendencies but gladly for home town fans, the score was still only 9-15. A converted try would do it.

Now the match was delicately balanced. The two-time Champions showed some real fight, as they have shown throughout the franchises history. With possession, they had a sniff of a win. Good to see it honestly, and fans who had suffered in the cold rain. In one push toward the line, tall wing Lausili Taliauli appeared be headed for the tryline. Just before the line though, Patrick Osborne made a decisive tackle and he very well saved the result.

Somewhat disputed post-match by the Larkin, for me it was as close as the Brumbies could get. The packed defence easily stopped their repeated attempts. Playing too narrow, it was proof that; even with favoring conditions, the Brumbies now lack adventure.


Brumbies lack adventure, Highlanders hold complete game

Badly missing Henry Speight, and some flair from the ‘good old days’ it is clear the Brumbies must now rebuild a style that includes more than just a rolling-maul. Anecdotal evidence shows that the wider-game is the key to success in the modern game. Like the All Blacks, and even how England play, the modern game needs adaptability rather than solid systems that focus too much on tight forward play. The tight exchanges are key, but as shown by the current Champion Highlanders, yes defence is primary while attack is a fundamental tool used to good effect in winning rugby sides.

Two tries tonight helped the visitors remedy a poor away record. They were eager to attempt anything, while in the final minutes, the Brumbies resembled the 2007 All Blacks in Cardiff–plugging away with little variation. If the Canberra team wishes to succeed, they need to show some intuitive ability to ‘make something from nothing’. Likely change due to personnel losses [Moore and Pocock on a sabbatical] could lead to this in 2017.

Visitors return home content

The Southern team are now much respected. Not only for recent history, but for their work effect. The values of the region are represented by this side. Today, they can ‘tough it out’ in the tough situations. Earlier in the season, they lost a tight game to the Blues. Play that same game tomorrow and fans will tell you ‘there is Never a doubt of Highlanders character’.

With that increased confidence, they now return to Dunedin to await the results of ‘Super Rugby Saturday’. In his typical laconic style, Jamie Joseph remarked to media “It was a real ding-dong arm wrestle but I’m really proud of the team in terms of how they finished the end. It could’ve gone either way really, but we’ve earned another week.”

They earned it, and deserve it no less.


Follow the other three matches in Saturday’s preview here on Last Word On Sports, with analysis of the last quarter final matches in our popular ‘Super Rugby Saturday’ feature series.

“Main photo credit”