Highlanders in narrow loss

GEORGINA ROBERTSON
Last updated 07:18 15/02/2014

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When you are the great white, heavily-hyped hope of the Australian conference a messy three-point victory over last year's second-worst team does not look good on paper.

But the 19-16 scoreline at Hunter Stadium belies the fact the new-look Highlanders lobbed on foreign shores with more starch than William Wallace on Friday night and set about making life difficult for a spirited but sloppy Waratahs attack.

In a bruising encounter, the Waratahs scored three tries to the Highlanders' one but were held in a cat-and-mouse game with the Jamie Joseph-coached New Zealanders.

The visitors put points on the board first and had an answer for everything the Waratahs scored.

A try to Hayden Parker, an eight-point haul to goal-kicking five-eighth Lima Sopoaga and a 70th minute penalty to Ben Smith kept NSW on their toes.

The home side answered with tries to Peter Betham and Michael Hooper in the first half and an impressive one-arm effort under the posts from Bernard Foley in the second.

But Michael Cheika will be hoping these were last minute wobbles before calm and class are restored in the Waratahs season opener against the Force in Sydney next weekend.

Sopoaga put the Highlanders 3-nil up with a penalty in the sixth minute, while their defence put a temporary cork in the Waratahs' attack.

The Waratahs took a long while to warm up, seasoned performers Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper and Kane Douglas among the many blue and white jerseys guilty of sloppy handling.

It would take another 10 minutes for the NSW attack to break through with a clean sweep off a lineout but this time they made it count.

Veteran centre Adam Ashley-Cooper drew the last of the Highlanders' defence leaving winger Peter Betham to gallop over in the corner.

Five-eighth Bernard Foley missed the difficult sideline conversion to leave the Waratahs in front 5-3 with 19 minutes gone.

Coach Michael Cheika swapped his halves pairing at the quarter time break, putting Brendan McKibbin and Kurtley Beale on for Matt Lucas and Bernard Foley.

The Highlanders snatched back a narrow lead with a second penalty kick in the 29th minute before Hooper hit back with a try two mintues later.

The home side took a six point lead when McKibbin slotted the conversion - from almost exactly the same spot as Foley's attempt 14 minutes earlier.

But the visitors were looking for points and found their opportunities, test halfback Aaron Smith pouncing on loose ball out of a ruck to set up Shane Christie to score the Highlanders' first try in the 35th minute.

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Sopoaga converted to edge the Highlanders in front again, 13-12.

The tussle continued after the break, with NSW winger Cam Crawford going close in the corner in the 39th minute.

But the Highlanders withstood some serious pressure, midfielder Parker showing his versatility with a turn at the back of the scrum and a sniping break into Waratahs territory.

Five-eighth Foley broke the deadlock with 20 minutes to go, a brilliant individual effort to beat a man and reach an arm out under the posts.

He converted his own try to put the Waratahs a more comfortable six points clear.

Parker had the final say with a penalty goal in the 69th minute but the Waratahs were home safe, 19-16 victors in their final pre-season trial.

It wasn't pretty and former coach Michael Foley will see plenty of soft underbelly to poke and prod when he brings across his South Africa-studded outfit next week. 

- Sydney Morning Herald

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