Highlanders Super Rugby record at home stays intact

Highlanders Super Rugby record at home stays intact
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The Highlanders Super Rugby record at home stays intact, after an Ben Smith double helped his team overcome a competitive Brumbies side 43-17, at Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

In a show of strength, the home side worked their way methodically through the ACT Brumbies. Only occasionally being shaken by the visitors, in a six try, bonus point victory.

The Highlanders had won their last nine games at home. A strong unit, they are not an easy team to challenge at anytime, and the Highlanders had won the last three fixtures against the Brumbies. Conversely, the Brumbies have lost their last 11 games against teams from New Zealand; their longest ever drought in trans-Tasman clashes.

Tonight, the visitors tried – showing much determination – but were unable to edge in front, and were blitzed in the second half by the ‘high flying Highlanders’.

One of the least penalized sides in the competition (only the Sunwolves have less) the Highlanders caused much of their own troubles tonight however. At times over-aggressive, they were penalized at set-piece and put themselves under the gun more times than they should have. Their attacking mindset was thankfully, the basis on which they would continue the Brumbies poor record in New Zealand.

Highlanders see off challenge from Brumbies David Pocock

Lima Sopoaga scored the first Highlanders try, to open their account for the night. It was after they had tested the Brumbies, who did not give up many meters without a fight. The most obvious proponent of that, was the returning David Pocock (see below picture).

His suffocating work on his opponents at the ruck, was tremendous. Known for his solid position, where the tackled player is put under immense pressure more often than not. While still adjusting to the new trial laws – where you can only get on your feet after entering ‘through the gate’ – he almost had a game changing effect. If it was for the Highlanders ability to spread the ball wide, mind you.

David Pocock of the Brumbies runs the ball during the round nine Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Brumbies at Forsyth Barr Stadium (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

To the Brumbies credit, they show effort on attack. An offensive five meter scrum resulting in abrasive Fijian number eight, Isireli Naisarani scoring. It was needed to pull back the ‘Landers lead back, and would have given Christian Lealiifano and his troops some hope.

Rory Arnold; who had seemed to suffer a knee injury early, was soon back to his irritating best. The Brumbies tall timber is both a menace in the line-out but also in the maul. He was described as a ‘pterodactyl’ in the colourful commentary of former-All Black, Andrew Mehrtens. His long limbs allowing him to wrap-up players and interfere with the home sides strategies in the maul.

Many of the Brumbies players were effective tonight. Tevita Kuridrani was a threat, but at times they ran out of options. Missing some heavyweight stars on the night, like Henry Speight. Even the efforts of Chance Peni were too often let off by dropped ball or kicking the ball away.

Highlanders lead at halftime 12-10

Not game leading by any means, but showing that the Highlanders have the superior counter-attacking ability to compliment their 62% territorial advantage. After some to-and-throw between the sides once the game restarted, the Highlanders decided to make a statement.

After securing an Brumbies lineout, Sopoaga chose to pass the ball wide. Not succeeding at the first attempt, they surprisingly chose to pass along the line again to escape their own 22 meter zone. That showed their intention. It demonstrated the sides confidence to pass the ball which is all due to the conditions. While it might be raining or be a crisp night outside, inside Forsyth-Barr Stadium, it is always dry. Always inviting the Highlanders backline to trust their instincts.

Over aggressive tackling was not a part of the plan though. And Lima Sopoaga was found guilty of this. With his team feeling they were in the ascendancy, his own actions almost stopped much of that with an yellow card. Tipping the tackled-player, his time off the field would cause fans plenty of nervousness.

The Brumbies could see an opportunity, but Lima will owe his winger Waisake Naholo a beer after this game. Another intercept try released the pressure building. And then with 63 minutes gone – and back to 15 players – the home side could thank many of their starters for the position they were now in. Jackson Hemopo was substituted, and a round of applause rang out.

Admired by commentators for his running style – in the mold of men like Norm Maxwell and Ali Williams – Hemopo also needed to make his tackles and take his lineout ball tonight. Job done. The workman-like role that many of the Highlanders take on, is the culture built at the Dunedin-based side. ‘I’ll do that for you mate’ is their immediate call. They all play for the other, a team culture developed by Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown exists. Aaron Mauger and his coaches are continuing those good habits.

‘Something out of Nothing’ see’s Highlanders Super Rugby record stay intact

Ben Smith is the ever-reliable fullback. His takes of the high ball and his last line of defence tackling are all strong parts of his game. But as he had enjoyed the benefits of a sabbatical in 2017, in 2018 his pace has also improved.

With the side showing great work to hold back the Brumbies, another lost ball was quickly shipped to the Highlanders backline. Making and pulling ‘something out of nothing’ Smith took the ball inside his half, and he ‘put the foot down’. With the pre-season work put in, his foot speed was vintage, as he picked up his second try to extend the lead.

Shannon Frizzle was the recipient of another counter-attack. His workrate was tremendous, and along with Dylan Hunt; and Elliot Dixon who finished the match, all showed how the Highlanders loose forwards contribute evenly. A meat pie is good reward, but with examples like Luke Whitelock showing that he ‘chews up tackles like Minties’ it has others following his lead.

The contact area is a deadly place, and in Dunedin it was no different. Hard and non-forgiving, advantages made here can often relate to both set-piece ball, and in possession. Line speed too was evident at this Highlanders Super Rugby inter-conference fixture. Evident in both defence running up, but also in teams spreading the ball with speed and in running up from deep in your own territory.

The expert work of David Pocock at the breakdown was on show right up to the end of this match. With the Highlanders looking for their sixth try, he blunted any possession by grasping the ball. Involved in as many as half a dozen moments of overturning ball, his worth will be felt by this Brumbies side, as much as the Wallabies in The Rugby Championship.

The final act of the game though, was naturally on attack. Living in the Brumbies half for the last five minutes or more, the home team spread the ball wide and from side-to-side. And in pushing the ball through hands multiple times, it allowed young Fletcher Smith to show some of his quality, and split the line.

Attacking play from Highlanders the difference in result

The home side employed some ‘new offensive tactics’ too against the Brumbies. Tevita Li joining the scrum was an interesting one. That move allowed Shannon Frizzle to roam as first receiver, and he could smash the ball up. Head coach Aaron Mauger showing some innovation in his game planning, which will be of interest to opponents who closely examine [and respect] this 2015 champion side.

They also showed some effective team work. Ben Smith finished off a classic 50 meter Highlanders attacking movement with his class. It was made from their clean delivery, with decoy-runners putting the Brumbies defence in doubt. But the finishing was all Ben Smith. Weaving his way through the line, to score his 34th career Highlanders Super Rugby try.

The Highlanders Super Rugby home record is impressive. They came out convincing winners, and it has underlined how much of a fortress the Highlanders home field is. They now travel up to Auckland, to take that form onto the road.

Highlanders 43 – Tries: Lima Sopoaga, Ben Smith (2), Waisake Naholo, Shannon Frizzle, Fletcher Smith; Conversions: Sopoaga (4), B Smith; Penalty: Sopaga.

Brumbies 17 – Tries: Isireli Naisarani, Joe Powell; Cons: Cons: Wharenui Hawera (2); Pen: Hawera.

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images