Highlanders cruise into playoffs

The Highlanders advanced to the knockout stage with a 34-8 bonus-point win over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on Saturday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.

With the Hurricanes failing to secure maximum log points in their 28-17 win over the Waratahs in Sydney, this result moves the Highlanders up to third in the New Zealand conference because they boast a better points difference than the Canes (both teams have 10 victories). Any one of the four New Zealand qualifiers can still end at the top of their closely contested conference.

Despite the Highlanders’ uncustomary struggles at the lineouts and scrums, there was only one side in this match. The Jaguares are associated with a fast, loose brand of rugby, but the Highlanders – with their superior execution – engaged in similar style and came out top.

Rarely does a team dominate territorially, and at the set pieces, and still manage to lose. But these are the Jaguares. They play beautiful rugby, but then malfunction at crucial times, robbing them of any momentum. Saturday was no different as the Highlanders pounced on handling errors to get their counter-attack going.

The Landers were deserving of their win even though they weren’t at their best for the full 80 minutes. The visitors outscored the Jaguares four tries to one and flyhalf Lima Sopoaga delivered a flawless kicking display to end with six from six off the tee.

The match started off in orthodox Highlanders fashion, when they launched a lethal counter-attack following a poor exit kick by Nicolás Sánchez. A feature of all Kiwi teams, the ball went quickly through the hands with a couple of subtle touches and fullback Ben Smith finished off in the corner.

They then, rather cynically, conceded a penalty which Sánchez popped over to get the Jaguares on the board following more lineout dominance. But again, in quick succession, two sweeping moves from turnover possession inside their own half first saw centre Rob Thompson and then flank Elliot Dixon score against the run of play for a 21-3 advantage.

As was the case with the Highlanders' two previous tries, the Jaguares threatened on attack, but made a mistake. However, just as it looked like another effort would come to nothing, the hosts showed great patience, spreading the ball from side to side, and it reaped reward when Juan Martín Hernández found a hole in the defence to score in the 36th minute.

But the Jaguares’ ill-discipline then surfaced and Sopoaga made them pay with a penalty either side of the break to extend the Highlanders’ lead.

Apart from a couple of off-the-ball scuffles, there wasn’t much action in the second half. The Jaguares did well to stifle the Highlanders attack and it was only in the 64th minute when Dixon found a way through from close quarters.

For the Jaguares, there were ample opportunities to add to their tally – they might even have denied the Highlanders a bonus point – but they just never found their finishing accuracy. 

Jaguares – Try: Juan Martín Hernández. Penalty: Nicolás Sánchez.
Highlanders – Tries: Ben Smith, Rob Thompson, Elliot Dixon (2). Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (4). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).

Jaguares – 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Jerónimo de la Fuente, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamón, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Javier Ortega Desio, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Subs: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Santiago Garcia Botta, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Ignacio Larrague, 20 Marcos Kremer, 21 Felipe Ezcurra, 22 Matías Orlando, 23 Lucas Gonzáles Amorosino.

Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Te Aihe Toma, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.

Photo: Alejandro Pagni/AFP Photo

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Mariette Adams