The Reds staved off a second-half comeback from the Highlanders to clinch a thrilling 28-27 win in Brisbane on Saturday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
Full credit to the Reds. They finally have their first win of the season. It certainly wasn't easy in the end, with the Highlanders outscoring the hosts 21-6 in the second half, but the Reds displayed immense character during the final stages of the clash to hold off the defending champions and clinch a major upset victory.
The match was ultimately won and lost in the first half as the Reds romped into a 16-point lead after stunning the out-of-sorts Highlanders with a precise and passionate performance. After losing the opening game of their campaign, the Highlanders had managed to win their last five games, but they only just edged the Force in a brutal clash last weekend.
Injuries forced a number of changes to the Highlanders team before Saturday’s encounter, and the disruptions certainly seemed to be reflected in an error-strewn performance in the opening stanza. The Landers made a number of handling errors, failed to execute opportunities on attack, and missed 25 tackles in the first half.
By contrast, the previously winless Reds were clinical and ambitious with ball in hand as they produced the best 40-minute performance of their season so far. Superbly executed first-half tries to Liam Gill, Nick Frisby and Samu Kerevi enabled the hosts to open up a 22-6 scoreline that would have caught most pre-match pundits by complete surprise.
It was a thoroughly deserved lead, though, as illustrated by SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, which indicate how the Reds had enjoyed the ascendancy when it came to virtually every attacking stat, most notably making 495m to the Highlanders’ 229, while beating 25 defenders compared to 10. They also made double the number of linebreaks.
There was a double sucker punch for the Highlanders soon after the restart when flanker Shane Christie first looked to have scored, but the TMO correctly adjudicated that he had been in front of the kicker in the lead-up to the try. A few minutes later and flyhalf Lima Sopoaga dived over the tryline, but this time TMO George Ayoub spotted an earlier act of foul play, and again the try was ruled out.
On either side of those try reversals, flyhalf Jake McIntyre kicked the Reds into a commanding 22-point lead as the frustration continued to build for the Highlanders.
Yet there was still a sense that the Highlanders were growing in confidence, while the Reds made the mistake of looking to defend a lead, and the visitors would finally have their first try just on the hour mark as scrumhalf Aaron Smith was put away in the corner.
As the Highlanders continued to build pressure and the Reds looked increasingly fatigued, centre Malakai Fekitoa burst over to score under the posts, and suddenly it was just an eight-point ball game heading into the final 11 minutes. Moments later and Sopoaga broke away to score the Landers' third try, cutting the deficit to just a solitary point after he also slotted the touchline conversion.
However, the visitors just couldn't get that one final score as time ran out while the Reds held on for a long-awaited win.
Reds – Tries: Liam Gill, Nick Frisby, Samu Kerevi. Conversions: Jake McIntyre (2). Drop goal: McIntyre. Penalties: McIntyre (2).
Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Lima Sopoaga. Conversions: Sopoaga (3). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Reds – 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Anthony Fainga’a, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jake McIntyre, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Rob Simmons (c), 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 James Slipper (c).
Subs: 16 Saia Fainga’a, 17 Sef Fa’agase, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Ben Matwijow, 20 Curtis Browning, 21 Scott Gale, 22 Sam Greene, 23 Ayumu Goromaru.
Highlanders – 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Pat Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Luke Whitelock, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ross Geldenhuys, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images