Scrum proves to be Highlanders' Achilles heel
On top of the shopping list for Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph will be a quality tighthead prop.
The curtain was brought down on the Highlanders' Super Rugby 2014 campaign yesterday morning as they lost 31-27 in the first round of the playoffs to the Sharks in Durban.
The Highlanders were given little hope going into the game after two below par performances against New South Wales Waratahs and the Crusaders, but yesterday morning, despite losing, they were far from outclassed.
They led 17-13 at halftime and even with nine minutes to play held a 27-25 buffer and a upset win was on the cards.
However, the scrum - or lack of it - cost the Highlanders a place in the semifinals on Saturday night.
The Highlanders gave up 17 points as a result of their under-pressure scrum and it could have been 20 if Sharks first five-eighth Francois Steyn had capitalised on one particular penalty.
The Highlanders scrum has been a problem in recent weeks and it was exposed by the power of the Sharks pack from South Africa.
Loosehead prop Kane Hames handled himself pretty well at Super Rugby level and will be eyed as the frontrunner for the Highlanders' No 1 jersey next year.
However, it is on the tighthead side where there is a concern.
Chris King struggled yesterday morning but he is France-bound anyway. Ma'afu Fia was the other tighthead in the squad but he missed the final three games because of a medical condition.
Southland's JP Koen was a left-field call up late in the season and Joseph showed confidence in throwing him into the Sharks frenzy with 20 minutes to play.
He was solid early on but he too was put under plenty of pressure at scrumtime.
Koen has plenty to play for during the national provincial season with the Stags to put his best foot forward for a fulltime callup to the Highlanders next season.
The scrum struggles also highlighted how big a loss veteran Brad Thorn was this season because of injury.
Thorn is understood to be one of the better scrummaging locks and he could have helped patch up some of the problems in this department if he was fit.
While the scrum demise was the negative to come out of yesterday morning there was still plenty to like about the Highlanders' performance.
As has been the case throughout a good chuck of the season the counter-attacking, led by fullback Ben Smith and supported by Patrick Osborne, Richard Buckman and Malakai Fekitoa, was superb.
A playoff spot exceeded most people's predictions for the Highlanders at the start of the season but Joseph said yesterday's result still did hurt.
''We thought we were going to win that game. The guys are pretty gutted in the changing rooms about losing that match but the Sharks are a quality side and that is the way it is,'' he said.
''I'm really proud of this team, it's been a really good season for our guys and they should be proud of themselves. They've done the jersey justice.
''The obvious work on for us is the set piece, you've just got to get that right.''
A LOOK AT SOME OF THE KEY MOMENTS
2min: The Highlanders are penalised for being offside and Sharks’ first five-eighth Francios Steyn opens the scoring with a penalty.
12min: The Highlanders scrum is smashed like a piece of wood with the Sharks awarded a penalty as a result. They opt to put the ball into the corner and go for a 5m lineout.
13min: The Sharks mount a strong lineout drive and as a result flanker Marcell Coetzee scored. Steyn adds the extras and the Sharks lead 10-0.
15min: The Highlanders have a lineout 10m from their own line but hooker Ged Robinson misses the mark and is called for a crooked throw. The Sharks opt for a scrum.
16min: From the scrum the Sharks put themselves into a scoring position and prop Jannie du Plessis looked to have grabbed a try. However, when it was sent up stairs it was clear du Plessis had got to the line on his knees instead of releasing the ball. As a result the TMO said no try.
24min: Jannie du Plessis is penalised for being offside and up steps Lima Sopoaga to score the Highlanders first points and reduce the score to 10-3.
28min: The Sharks mount a strong rolling maul and the Highlanders are penalised for infringing. Steyn lands a kick 15m in from touch and 25m out to take it to 13-3.
32min: From the halfway mark Ben Smith sends a nice pass the way of Malakai Fekitoa to put him in a hole. From there it was the in-form centre as Fekitoa sprinted the 40 metres evading the Sharks defence to score. The Sopoaga conversion made it 13-10 in favour of the Sharks.
33min: After the Fekitoa try Jarred Hoeata failed to take the kick-off knocking the ball on.
34min: Kane Hames was penalised at the scrum but Steyn failed to convert hitting the upright in the penalty attempt.
38min: The Highlanders are awarded a penalty in a kickable position but Aaron Smith takes a tap quickly instead of shooting for goal. It is a move which didn’t pay off as the Highlanders turn the ball over with a penalty for holding on in the tackle.
40min: With time up in the first half Ben Smith mounts an attack from deep inside the Highlanders’ own half and it eventually leads to prop Kane Hames scoring. With the Sopoaga’s conversion the Highlanders went into halftime 17-13 up.
44min: The Sharks are awarded a penalty in a kickable position but back their dominant rolling maul and send the ball into the corner for a lineout. However, they did not capitalise as the Sharks didn’t come up with any points from the movement.
46min: The Highlanders gained back field position and got a penalty of their own. They opt for the shot at goal and Sopoaga makes it four from four to push the lead out to 20-13.
52min: The Highlanders have a defensive scrum five metres from their own line. The Sharks split the Highlanders’ scrum to pieces which left flanker Shane Christie scrambling. In Christie’s attempt to clear the ball comes loose and hooker Bismark du Plessis pounces to score. Steyn converts to make it 20-20.
55min:Replacement wing Tonderai Chavhanga finds a small opening down the blindside and shows his impressive pace to have the Highlanders defence grasping at air as he ntsGscootedntescoots from close to halfway to score. Steyn fails to convert but the Sharks hold a 27-25 lead.
62min: From long range Ben Smith delivers yet another nice pass to put wing Patrick Osborne into a hole. Osborne carved through the Sharks defence and just before the lined produced a nice offload to second five-eighth Phil Burleigh to score. Sopoaga yet again makes no mistake with the goalkicking and with 15 minutes to play the Highlanders lead 27-25.
71min: Replacement loose forward Jean Deysel looks certain to put his team back in front when he heads for the tryline. However, he loses the ball in the process of putting it down.
72min:From the Highlanders scrum five metres from their own line theY again put under plenty of pressure which results in a penalty. Steyn steps up to kick the penalty and take a 28-27 lead.
78min: The Sharks are awarded another penalty within kicking range and to help soak up time. Steyn lines up the shot and makes no mistake. From the kick-off the Sharks gather to kick the ball out a seal a semifinals berth.
The Southland Times