Matt Faddes scored a brace as the Highlanders claimed a 34-15 win over the Lions in Dunedin on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Highlanders are back. After a shaky start to the 2016 Super Rugby tournament, they are now starting to play the brand of rugby that made them such a force in 2015.
On Saturday, the Highlanders put four tries past the Lions. More significantly, the Highlanders conceded just two five-pointers to a dangerous Lions side.
Defence was the Highlanders' method of attack. The hosts put the the Lions under tremendous pressure at the breakdown. They forced turnovers in this area, and the ensuing counter-attack often resulted in points. They put the ball in the air and then won it back. At times, it was like watching the All Blacks.
Of course, the performance must be put into context. The Lions were without their first-choice midfield due to injuries. Johan Ackermann opted to rotate his front row for this the final match of a three-game overseas tour.
The Highlanders made an early statement when they won several scrum penalties against a much-fancied Lions pack. The hosts dominated territory in the early stages, and the pressure eventually told.
In the 25th minute, Lima Sopoaga kicked a grubber for Matt Faddes to chase. Sopoaga then converted the right winger's try to propel the Highlanders into a 10-0 lead.
The Lions scored their first points through Elton Jantjies in the 33rd minute. The visitors did well to resist the Highlanders in the dying moments of the first half. At half-time, the score was 10-3, and the Lions were still in the game.
That all changed in the first five minutes of the second stanza. The Highlanders moved up a gear, and made two scoring opportunities count.
Ben Smith took a quick lineout in his own half, passing the ball to Aaron Smith. The scrumhalf advanced on the last Lions defender, and then passed the ball back to the Highlanders fullback. Courtnall Skosan chased Ben Smith for 60m, but the All Blacks No 15 had enough speed to score in the left-hand corner.
The Lions attempted to up the tempo thereafter. They advanced towards the Highlanders' 22, and looked to have the hosts' stretched.
A flat pass, however, was picked off by Faddes. The winger ran 70-odd metres to score, and Sopoaga (who was flawless in front of goal and bagged 14 points in all), added the extras to extend the lead to 24-3.
The contest was over as far as the result was concerned. And yet there was still much to be gained in the final quarter. The Highlanders pushed to maintain their three-try lead, and secure the bonus point. The Lions fought to finish the match within seven of the victors and claim a bonus point of their own.
The Highlanders scored their fourth try through Malakai Fekitoa, another player who had a massive game on both attack and defence, in the 56th minute. The Lions, however, did not relent. They scored two tries through Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Ruhan Ackermann. They nearly scored a third at the death when Franco Mostert crashed over the line. The Highlanders defence did enough to hold the big Lions lock up.
The Lions won't be too disappointed with the result. They have finished their overseas tour with two wins from three games. They will be a force when they return to South Africa.
Highlanders – Tries: Matt Faddes (2), Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (4). Penalty: Sopoaga. Drop goal: Sopoaga.
Lions – Tries: Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruhan Ackermann. Conversion: Elton Jantjies. Penalty: Jantjies.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Gareth Evans, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Lions – 15 Jaco van der Walt, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenberg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruhan Ackermann, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jacques Nel, 23 Andries Coetzee.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images