Highlanders pay heavily for poor discipline
It says a lot about the direction the Highlanders season is taking that they will look back on the seven points they garnered in South Africa with some measure of disappointment.
A bonus point win over the Sharks, and a one-point defeat to the Stormers yesterday which earned them a further two bonus points, would have been considered a decent return for this team when it gathered at Dunedin airport two weeks ago for the first of several flights to the republic.
But even with a couple of minutes to go, before referee Craig Joubert found a knock-on as they were pressuring the Stormers' line in the dying minutes at Newlands, the Highlanders were chasing the maximum, along with a fourth straight win and their sixth of the season.
The Highlanders have now won five from nine. Three of their four losses have been by two points or less and the Highlanders are as competitive as any other side in the New Zealand conference.
If they are the real deal, they will come home and bank five points against the Lions in Dunedin on Saturday night.
They then face a tough bracket of matches against the Hurricanes (away), Crusaders (home) and Reds (away), but if they can grind their way through that they will still be in playoff contention heading into the June test window.
That's something those who support this team have been crying out for, but it's something few would have expected at the start of the season.
Perhaps the best evidence that this team is growing is the fact it can remain in games even when it isn't playing that well. That was certainly the case in the early hours of yesterday morning when they were dominated by a home team inspired by the talismanic figure of Schalk Burger.
The Highlanders were awful fielding the ball in the air, especially from kick restarts, and were under pressure throughout the first half because of it.
The Stormers scored three first half tries and could have had more if they'd treasured the ball a bit more inside the Highlanders' 22m, but somehow the visitors only found themselves down 19-14 at halftime, thanks in part to Lima Sopoaga who shrugged off a rolled ankle to lay on a try to Trent Renata which included a sprinkling of Ben Smith magic.
With half an hour to go the Highlanders were well out of the game at 26-14 but they were able to apply enough pressure to get hooker Scarra Ntubeni binned and then good enough to lay on 14 points in his absence, with well-taken tries to Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa.
Unfortunately, Brayden Mitchell's sinbinning for a lifting tackle put the Highlanders back under pressure, trailing by a point and down to 14 men for much of the last quarter of an hour.
Fekitoa, who was given a hard welcome to South Africa with a late hit from behind by Jean de Villiers, has been in top tryscoring form this season. Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said the rookie centre may be trying to do too much.
"Maybe he's putting too much pressure on himself, I know we aren't," Joseph said. "He just needs to keep doing his own job and if he does that there's no doubt he'll get better."
Elliot Dixon continues to have his best season at this level, his cover defence saving at least one try for the Highlanders, along with his lineout work, while Nasi Manu and the All Black duo of Aaron and Ben Smith are class.
Chris King was unable to celebrate his 100th game for the Highlanders with a win, but it wasn't for lack of trying, with the 33-year-old throwing himself all around the park.
"I've got a lot of respect for him," Joseph said.
"He's played 116 [total] games of Super Rugby as well as the ITM Cup. He gets on and does it which is what we are trying to reflect as a team in terms of his work ethic and his values."
There will be some concern this week over the fitness of Sopoaga and whether his ankle will affect a remarkable run of goal kicking this season, while Patrick Osborne will definitely be out for Saturday's game with his own ankle issues.