Waisake Naholo scored a brace in the Highlanders' 39-21 hammering of the Stormers in Dunedin. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Highlanders deserve applause. They not only played with intensity and physicality, but with intelligence. A convincing performance led to a convincing result: their first win against the Stormers in seven games.
The final scoreline doesn't reflect the extent of their dominance. While the Highlanders were bullied at the scrums, they bossed the breakdowns. They manhandled the Stormers at the collisions, and their line defence did well to limit the Stormers' ball carriers.
Cheslin Kolbe will cop a lot of flak for his missed tackle on Naholo in the buildup to the winger's second try. But the brutal truth is that the Stormers failed as a team at the Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday. They attempted to play too much rugby behind the gainline, and their defence lacked that characteristic punch and determination.
This was apparent even in the lead-up to the game's first try. Schalk Burger, playing in 100th match, struggled to go through the Highlanders defence, and popped a basketball-style pass over the top of the tackler. Juan de Jongh juggled the pass, and then completed the score, but the try was anything but a statement of intent.
The visitors missed regular captain Duane Vermeulen in this fixture. None of their players, not even Burger, managed to dent that Highlanders defence. Their own tackling and breakdown work was poor, and the Highlanders didn't have to work too hard to make metres or score points.
This was illustrated in the buildup to Aaron Smith's try. The Highlanders rumbled forward, and the All Blacks No 9 finished by placing the ball against the base of the upright.
The Stormers' inability to cross the gainline would gift the Highlanders another big opportunity. Instead of carrying the ball up, Burger sat back in the pocket, crabbed across field, and shovelled the ball onto De Jongh. The Stormers stand-in skipper passed the ball to the outside, but only succeeded in finding Naholo. The result of this static piece of play was a 70m intercept try for the Highlanders winger.
In that crucial period before half-time, Naholo found himself in view of the tryline once again. All that stood in his way was the diminutive figure of Kolbe. The powerful winger ran straight at the small fullback. It was always going to be hard to stop Naholo from there, but Kolbe let himself down with a poor tackling techinque. Kolbe went high on Naholo, when he should have aimed for the bigger man's legs.
At 31-7, the Stormers were always going to struggle to come back. Smith was yellow-carded in the 56th minute, and the Cape side made some progress with a try by Michael Rhodes. De Jongh grabbed his second later, but all this served to do was add some respectability to the scoreline.
The Highlanders will challenge for a play-off spot this season. The Stormers, after a catastrophic start to their Australasian tour, have plenty to rectify. They were outplayed and outmuscled in Dunedin, and that will hurt as much as the loss.
Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, Waisake Naholo (2), Patrick Osborne, Dan Pryor. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3), Marty Banks. Penalties: Sopoaga, Banks.
Stormers – Tries: Juan de Jongh (2), Michael Rhodes. Conversions: Demetri Catrakilis, Kurt Coleman (2).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Pingi Tala'apitanga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Stormers – 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Juan de Jongh (c), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Manuel Carizza, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Eben Etzebeth, 20 Michael Rhodes, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Huw Jones.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images