Highlanders fall to the Force
Bogey team takes streak to sixNATHAN BURDON IN DUNEDIN
The Highlanders are probably wishing they hadn't had their bye.
Before last weekend's break they had beaten the Blues at home and pushed the Chiefs, the best team in the competition, in Hamilton.
After having a week off they looked passive and indecisive at key moments against a Western Force team full of vigour after a breakout win over the Rebels last week.
And it was those key moments which meant the Highlanders were left wondering what might have been after their late comeback came up agonisingly short in a 31-29 loss.
The Force are a special sort of bogey team for the Highlanders - although it's difficult to say exactly why - with the Perth-based team tonight claiming their sixth straight win over the Highlanders.
The Force did it the hard way too, down to 13 men for the final eight minutes after Glen Jackson got sick of their high penalty rate and No 8 Ben McCalman was binned for a tip tackle on Chris King.
How frustrating was this game for the Highlanders. They could see space and numbers out wide but they were finding it really hard to exploit it.
When they did, the cover defence by the Force was good enough and their defence in the closing stages was nothing short of exceptional.
Despite packing a dominant scrum, the Highlanders didn't really get much payoff from that set piece, there were few attacking opportunities for Ben Smith, and they weren't able to put the Force away despite having two more men.
The Force took a 21-16 lead into the break after scoring three soft tries.
Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman was having a game to forget, throwing the pass which Sias Ebersohn picked off to scamper half the field and score under the posts, and then missing a tackle on McCalman which saw the big No 8 crash over just before halftime.
Some dodgy lineout throwing added to Coltman's misery and he was swapped for Ged Robinson with half an hour to go.
The Highlanders were looking good at scrumtime and that platform allowed Aaron Smith, who had earlier been held up underneath the bar, to thread through a neat grubber kick for Shaun Treeby to score.
It was a rare moment of success in the Force 22m, however, with the Australian side happy to give away penalties at their end of the paddock rather than let the Highlanders get to the line.
The McCalman score was a heart breaker for the Highlanders, who had fought their way into a two point lead on the back of some accurate goal kicking from Lima Sopoaga, only to head into the shed down 21-16.
The game was effectively over before the final quarter when Junior Rasolea brilliantly charged down Sopoaga's attempted clearing kick, the ball sticking in his arms and allowing him to skirt the defence and score the Force's bonus point try in the corner.
Ebersohn landed his second sideline conversion of the game to give the Force a 15 point lead.
With 20 minutes to go there was the inevitable comeback from the Highlanders, Malakai Fekitoa grabbing his second try in a Highlanders jersey when he crashed over close to the ruck when the Highlanders finally got the chance to play on despite the Force's persistent infringing when defending their own line.
Hayden Parker scored the Highlanders third try just before time, but his conversion from wide out to draw the game struck the upright.
Force 31 (Nathan Charles, Sias Ebersohn, Ben McCalman, Junior Rasolea tries; Ebersohn 4 con, pen)
Highlanders 29 (Shaun Treeby, Malakai Fekitoa, Hayden Parker tries; Lima Sopoaga 4 pen, con)