Lucky escape for Highlanders against the Lions
The Highlanders are keen to park a forgettable second half performance against the Lions and look forward to an exciting clash against the Hurricanes on Friday.
The Highlanders banked their sixth win in 10 starts in Dunedin on Saturday night, but only after surviving a second half meltdown which saw them needing every bit of a 23-point halftime lead.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph knows the Hurricanes will be a different prospect in the capital.
"They are on fire really, aren't they?
"Even the game they lost against the Waratahs, they scored three tries in about five minutes, so they are quite lethal and we have to be on the money. They had a quieter game against Melbourne, but it's going to be a good game [this] week."
The Highlanders looked very much like a team feeling the effects of their tough South African campaign, conceding four second half tries and only winning the game when Lions replacement kicker Elton Jantjies' angled conversion struck the posts and rebounded in the final act of the game.
The second half was like a bad joke retold four times as the Lions came from nowhere to the point they were desperately unlucky not to claim just their second victory away from home in their past 15 games.
On another night the Lions would have been awarded a try under the posts and won the game, or even been given another conversion attempt after the Highlanders rushed the kicker.
"It just shows you what type of team we are. We are the type of team that needs to take every opportunity when we get it and not get soft mentally, because we aren't good enough," Joseph said. "For us as a group, we just leave that one behind us and pick the right team to play what's going be a really difficult opposition in their home town."
The Highlanders will be without Southland forwards John Hardie (medial ligament strain) and Josh Bekhuis (high ankle sprain), who both limped out of the game inside the first 20 minutes. With Shane Christie and Lima Sopoaga missing through injury, and Chris King sinbinned for an illegal hit on Lions player Warren Whitely midway through the second half, it was a decidedly green looking Highlanders team which played much of the game, even if they were still in traditional blue and gold.
Tom Franklin made his Super Rugby debut in the second row, Argentinian prop Matias Diaz played so well in King's absence that he was left out there after the 10 minutes expired, and Gareth Evans claimed a first half try after replacing Hardie.
Hayden Parker landed a sideline conversion, a 48m penalty and a drop goal in Sopoaga's absence, but it was two first half tries to unheralded winger Richard Buckman which proved the difference.
The first was a lovely bit of finishing, with some neat footwork and a full length dive to evade the cover defence, while the second came on the back of a some fine chasing of a long Phil Burleigh kick.
"We made it pretty exciting for the fans, although I don't know if they appreciated it too much," Buckman, who started the season in the wider training group but has been one of the Highlanders' most consistent players since his promotion, said ruefully after the game.
"It was pretty heart-pumping that last conversion, but we'll take the win. We've got no excuses. We played pretty poorly in that second half and gave them the opportunity to come back. We are just lucky to get away with the four points I guess."
Buckman spent several seasons with the Hurricanes for limited game time and is looking forward to getting another win over his old team-mates, especially former flatmates Beauden Barrett and James Broadhurst, after early bragging rights in a 35-31 win in Dunedin in March.
"I guess we've just got to evaluate what we did in the first half and we didn't do so well in the second half. When we've got ball in hand we are a pretty dangerous team but we were pretty starved of that ball in the second half and we were defending a lot of time."
Sopoaga, Christie and Jarrad Hoeata are all expected to be available for Friday's game in Wellington.
Highlanders 23 (Richard Buckman 2, Gareth Evans tries; Hayden Parker con, pen, drop goal) Lions 22 (Faf de Klerk, Lionel Mapoe, Armand van der Merwe, Cournall Skosan tries; Marnitz Boshoff con). HT: 23-0
The Southland Times