The Highlanders erased a 14-point deficit to claim a hard-fought 32-20 win over the Force in Dunedin on Friday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
After shipping 94 points against the Chiefs and Hurricanes over the past fortnight, credit should go to the Force for the gritty performance they delivered against the champions. They weren't dominating at the set pieces, but were well disciplined and used their kicking game to good effect to stay competitive for the full 80 minutes.
The Highlanders played well in patches, but will not be pleased about their second-rate all-round performance. Although they were unable to execute efficiently in the first half, the Highlanders steadily worked their way into the match, coming from behind twice to secure the win and collect the log points.
The Force made an encouraging start to the game, when Dane Haylett-Petty crossed for a third-minute try. The fullback put in a well-weighted kick which was fumbled at the back by Highlanders wing Patrick Osborne and Petty pounced on the loose ball to score the opening try.
Five minutes later and the visitors doubled their advantage when first hooker Heath Tessman opened up the Highlanders defence to make some valuable yardage over the gainline before No 8 Ben McCalman barged over to score. Flyhalf Peter Grant converted on both occasions to give the Force maximum points for early dominance.
As expected, though, a Highlanders' response was imminent. The hosts pushed the Force pack off the ball at a scrum, creating an opportunity out wide for the backs and Osborne was on the end of the final pass to get them on the scoreboard. Flank Dan Dryor then finished off a superb counter-attacking move stemming from a rare kick by the Force. Flyhalf Hayden Park added the extras as the teams headed into the break with the scores tied at 14-14.
There wasn't much change performance-wise in the second half, as the high number of handling errors continued. Grant put the Force ahead with a penalty soon after the restart, but a quick 10-point burst via a Parker penalty and a converted try by wing Matt Faddes saw the Highlanders take an unassailable lead.
Grant and Parker traded kicks once more, but replacement centre Jason Emery ripped through the Force defence to put some gloss on a scoreline that flattered the Highlanders.
There was an exciting finish to the match with both teams keeping the ball alive well into stoppage time as they went in search of bonus points. With the Force on attack, the ball squirted loose and was hacked forward. Ash Dixon gave chase, but a great tackle on the tryline denied him the score. The Highlanders did eventually cross the line, only for the bonus-point try to be ruled out by the TMO.
Highlanders – Tries: Patrick Osborne, Dan Pryor, Matt Faddes, Jason Emery. Conversions: Hayden Parker (2), Marty Banks. Penalties: Parker (2).
Force – Tries: Dane Haylett-Petty. Ben McCalman. Conversions: Peter Grant (2). Penalties: Grant (2).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Pat Osborne, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Shane Christie (c), 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Force – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Solomoni Rasolea, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Pekahou Cowan.
Subs: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Ryan Lourens, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Albert Nikoro.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images