The Highlanders set up an all-New Zealand Vodacom Super Rugby final with a 35-17 win against the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
Jamie Joseph's side will now travel to Wellington to face the Hurricanes, who beat the Brumbies 29-9 in their semi-final.
The Highlanders scored five tries to one and spent 60% of the game in opposition territory. The Waratahs will bemoan a couple of decisions that went against them – Richard Buckman's try and the penalty try were both controversial – but referee Craig Joubert and his assistants did miss a forward pass in the buildup to Rob Horne's try.
The Highlanders played a tactically smart game, kicking well out of hand to keep the frustrated Waratahs pinned inside their half. The visitors played with great energy, while the hosts looked flat at times and struggled to build momentum. The Tahs' lineout was also poor and they lost five on their own throw.
The Highlanders made a strong start to this semi-final, hammering away at the Tahs' tryline, and while they couldn't cross it, they did come away with three points courtesy of a Lima Sopoaga penalty.
But the Waratahs hit back with a try following a passage of play that saw strong runs from Israel Folau and Taqele Naiyaravoro. With Joubert playing advantage (having missed a forward pass earlier in the move), Bernard Foley exposed the Highlanders' narrow defence with a cross-kick to Horne, who went over in the left-hand corner despite Waisake Naholo's best efforts to keep him out.
The visitors had a great try-scoring opportunity when they poached a lineout 5m from the Waratahs tryline, only to concede a turnover at the ruck. A forward pass from Malakai Fekitoa to Patrick Osborne inside the Tahs' 22 then ended another promising attack.
But the Highlanders did get their first try from the subsequent scrum when Wycliff Palu's pass off the back was intercepted by Aaron Smith.
Two Foley penalties gave the Waratahs an 11-8 lead after half an hour, but it didn't last long as Buckman scored a try that came from nothing. The midfielder picked up a loose ball and while he was tackled to the ground, Joubert correctly ruled he had not been held. Buckman got back to his feet in a flash and past Nick Phipps before diving over the line.
Sopoaga nailed the conversion, before Foley kicked his third penalty to reduce the deficit to one. Sopoaga's 40m penalty attempt after the half-time hooter came off an upright, much to the relief of the Tahs who had opted to attack from a late penalty only to concede one themselves.
The Highlanders botched a try-scoring opportunity early in the second half when Aaron Smith uncharacteristically knocked on from the back of a 5m scrum.
The Tahs threw three points away when Phipps took a quick penalty tap, only for his team to knock on a few phases later, but they did point to the posts soon after, with Foley putting them ahead 17-15.
However, the Highlanders responded almost immediately, with Naholo chasing down his own kick into the in-goal area to score his 12th try of the season.
And that was followed by a penalty try, when Joubert ruled that a swinging arm from Jacques Potgieter had prevented Osborne from scoring a try.
The South African flanker was also yellow-carded, and while the Waratahs did well not to concede any points while he was off, they never looked like adding to their tally.
Sopoaga slotted a drop goal with five minutes to go, and then put the icing on the cake when his cross-kick to Osborne resulted in his side's fifth try.
Waratahs – Try: Rob Horne. Penalties: Bernard Foley (4).
Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, Richard Buckman, Waisake Naholo, penalty try, Patrick Osborne. Conversion: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalty: Sopoaga. Drop goal: Sopoaga.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Matt Carraro, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 David Dennis (c), 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Peter Betham.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edwards.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Photo: Matt King/Getty Images